This Week in the MAAC: Jan. 3, 2002

Novello Injury May Net Davis A Chance

The best rookie story of the first half of the season has been AIC goaltender Frank Novello. Save one rocky night in November, Novello has proved to be one of the top rookie goaltenders in the league.

What some have forgotten, though, was that AIC recruited two top goaltenders this season, matching Novello with Chad Davis. To date, Davis has only seen action in four games, compiling a 1-2-0 record. But according to coach Gary Wright, the numbers don’t speak for themselves.

About the goaltending situation — a key element to the AIC mix this season, the team having graduated standout Chance Thede last season — Wright admits that he approached the situation “with a clean slate.” He noted that neither goalie was given any preference entering training camp.

“I only saw [Novello] on tape and was impressed, but we were pretty high on Chad Davis too,” said Wright. “Obviously time will prove for certain, but we felt we did well with the challenge of bringing in two goalies in one year.”

The clean slate had to be influenced a bit after the first game of the season — a 3-2 win over Fairfield that saw Novello stop 59 shots.

"I only saw [Novello] on tape and was impressed, but we were pretty high on Chad Davis too. … Obviously time will prove for certain, but we felt we did well with the challenge of bringing in two goalies in one year."

— AIC coach Gary Wright

About Novello’s early-season miracle performance, Wright said: “I don’t know if it’s exactly what I expected, but he was highly heralded coming in.”

An understatement, to say the least.

As time passed, Novello saw more action and continued to post big numbers. Forty-eight and 57 saves in losses to Bentley and Connecticut, respectivey. Forty-nine and 42 saves in back-to-back wins against Fairfield. Suddenly, the job of goaltender seemed a little more secure.

But Wright was intent on giving Davis a shot. When Novello hiccuped in an 8-2 loss at Connecticut, Wright decided to try to work Davis back into the lineup. Davis faced Sacred Heart a week later and stopped 34 shots in a 4-1 victory before the break. At that point, Wright decided that Davis had earned another start.

“I think coming off his last performance [against Sacred Heart, Davis] would have gotten one of the starts anyway this weekend,” Wright said.

On the last day of practice, though, before Christmas break, that changed. Novello tweaked his knee. The injury is not thought to be severe, but as a precaution, Novello will miss both games this weekend against Holy Cross.

“We could probably have [Novello] in the nets right now, but we’re going to be very careful about it,” said Wright.

One thing to note, though, is that it is highly unlikely that Davis will put up numbers similar to Novello’s early-season form. That, though, has little to do with his goaltending skill and a lot to do with the improvement of the AIC defense.

“In recent games we haven’t had such a great differential in shots,” said Wright. “I know back in the three Fairfield games, and there were some other games as well, it almost looked sensational how we were getting totally dominated.

“There was a concern on our part, but not to an exaggerated extent. If it had continued like that, there would be more to it. But we understand that we’re going to play some [bad] games, and territorially [other] teams may have some kind of an advantage.

“But I don’t think it’s going to be as one-sided as it was. When it is, we hope to get the good goaltending.”

The AIC defense has, in fact, been limiting opponent shots. In the first nine games, opponents averaged 46 shots on goal per game. In the last three, that total has been dramatically reduced, to less than 33 per game.

Wright hopes that this trend continues as the Yellow Jackets travel this Friday to Holy Cross to meet one of the hottest teams in the MAAC. The two clubs complete the home-and-home in Springfield on Saturday night.

“We’re had great games in recent years with Holy Cross,” said Wright. “Almost every game in the last couple of years has been a tie or a one-goal game.” AIC, in fact, won two of the three contests last year against Holy Cross last year, both in overtime.

This year could be a bit different, though. AIC finds itself fighting to stay alive in the playoffs while Holy Cross is fighting for the league title. The difference in the two teams is no surprise to Wright.

“I definitely knew that [Holy Cross] would be improved,” said Wright. They had most of their team returning and I thought they had a pretty good recruiting class coming in.

“There’s so much parity in our league, though, so I don’t know if I’m surprised [that Holy Cross has been successful]. They were picked lower and they’re playing well, but I thought they were a decent team with a lot of potential.”

Weekly Awards

Due to the lack of games among MAAC teams last week, the league did not select weekly awards. In that absence, I will take the liberty of highlighting some of the better performances.

We can start with UConn’s D.J. Miller. Though he was held off the scoreboard in Friday’s semifinal of the Cingular/UConn Classic, Miller responded on Saturday night to score two first-period goals, including the game-winner, in a 3-1 victory over Bentley.

Quinnipiac lost two tough battles to RPI and Niagara last weekend, but the QU offense posted impressive numbers. The top line of Brian Herbert, Neil Breen and Ryan Morton combined for five goals and nine points on the weekend. Right wing Ryan Olsen also notched three goals in the two-game RPI tournament.

And though nine goals against in five-plus periods of work for QU goaltender Justin Eddy doesn’t sound that impressive, the sophomore netminder should be given credit for keeping Quinnipiac’s hopes alive in the semifinals versus Rensselaer. Eddy made 49 saves in the double-overtime loss, including 36 from the third period on.

Extremely Long Night For Quinnipiac

Rand Pecknold and his Quinnipiac squad got to play a lot more hockey then they bargained for last weekend at the Rensselaer/HSBC Holiday Hockey Tournament in Troy, N.Y. Facing RPI in the second semifinal on Friday night, Quinnipiac lasted more than 90 minutes before falling, 5-4, in double overtime.

The game was the longest in both schools’ hockey history when RPI’s Chris Migliore ended the game at 10:50 of the second overtime, and it ranks as the 12th-longest game in Division I history — fourth-longest in the regular season. Only the 1968 Minnesota Holiday Classic championship (won by North Dakota, 5-4 over Minnesota), and two games from the Syracuse Invitational Tournament (1987 games that saw Clarkson win, 7-6, over Colgate, and the 1996 championships game in which Cornell defeated Providence, 4-3) were longer.

The length of the RPI game wasn’t the only thing out of the ordinary for Quinnipiac last weekend. The results themselves of Quinnipiac’s games were truly an aberration. Normally a team that thrives in high-octane, run-and-gun contests, QU was stymied in its quest to record a win over either team.

Since moving to Division I, Quinnipiac had posted a record of 67-7-4 when scoring at least four goals in a game prior to last weekend. Nevertheless, the Maize and Gold came up empty on both nights, despite scoring four times against RPI and six times against Niagara. The six goals against the Purple Eagles were a season high for the squad.

At the same time, with the losses Quinnipiac fell below .500 at the latest point in a season since the 1994-95 campaign. In fact, since moving to Division I, Quinnipiac has only been below .500 for a total of five games. The worst span for QU occurred at the start of the 1999-2000 season, when it went 0-2-1 in its first three games before promptly winning nine of 10 contests. During the 1998-99 and 2000-01 seasons, Quinnipiac was never under .500 at any point. If Quinnipiac hopes to reach the positive side of .500, the team may have to wait a while: this weekend, the team will travel west to face No. 6 Michigan State. Quinnipiac is 1-3-0 all-time versus nationally-ranked teams, having been outscored, 29-9, in those games.

MAAC Goes 0-For At Cingular Tournament

With MAAC teams making up 75 percent of the field at last weekend’s Cingular/UConn Classic tournament in Storrs, Conn., odds would say that there was a pretty good chance a MAAC team could take the title. Add to that the fact that the fourth team in the tournament was Air Force, the last-place team in College Hockey America, and the odds looked even better.

But, alas, the MAAC proved defenseless against the Air Force attack, as Bentley and Holy Cross became AFA’s most recent MAAC victims, and the Falcons (Air Force, not Bentley, that is) walked home with the tournament title.

Regardless of Air Force’s standing within its own conference, it has owned the MAAC with a 7-1-0 record against MAAC teams — the only loss coming on October 20, when AFA blew a two-goal lead, falling 7-6 to Holy Cross.

So Sunday’s championship was a little bit of revenge for Air Force. Head coach Frank Serratore noted that his team’s depth was the key.

“We were able to roll four lines tonight that were just as good if not better than Holy Cross’ top couple of lines,” said Serratore afterward. “That’s certainly a great advantage for a team.”

That depth has been apparent since Air Force joined the CHA at its inception three years ago. Though the Falcons have never finished higher than fourth in the six-team league, they have compiled a 17-3-1 record all-time against MAAC teams (and that doesn’t even include two wins against Army in 1998-99, when Army was a member of the CHA).

It’s no wonder that before the season and even into early November, Serratore was rumored to be making calls around, inquiring about membership in the MAAC.

Special thanks to Sean Caruthers for his contributions to this week’s column.