This Week in the MAAC: Jan. 17, 2002

Holy Cross Will Crusade To Finish

Exactly one year ago, the Holy Cross Crusaders were in a battle. Two years removed from winning the inaugural MAAC championship, the Crusaders had an overall record of 5-13-1 and had piled up only 11 points in league play — but were still in the playoff race.

Their destiny rested in their own hands. Two games against Fairfield, one versus AIC and one with Bentley: win these games and pick up a couple more along the way, and Holy Cross would make the playoffs.

Simple formula, poor execution. Holy Cross went 3-8-1 in its final 12 league games and finished four points behind Fairfield and Army for the final playoff spots.

A year later, though, life in Worcester, Mass., is different. This year, Holy Cross isn’t fighting for the final playoff spot, but for a league title. With 12 games left on their slate, the Crusaders stand alone in second place, three points behind Mercyhurst and three points ahead of Canisius. They’ve lost just three league games — to Iona, AIC and Fairfield, the latter two by one goal each.

As they enter this weekend’s series with Canisius, the focus in the Crusader locker room is different. Championships can once again be thought of, instead of simply making the playoffs. Home ice is now a more than legitimate goal.

Not too far ahead, though, lies the chance for more than the Pot o’Gold at the end of the Holy Cross rainbow. Holy Cross’ hometown will play the role of ambassador to college hockey for the month of March.

Begin with the MAAC playoffs. Should the Crusaders gain home ice, which seems likely, they would host a first-round game in the MAAC playoffs. Success in that venue would result in Holy Cross as not only host, but participant, in the MAAC Final Four. Remembering back three years, the only title that Holy Cross won came as host. That year, Holy Cross defeated Connecticut in overtime and won a battle with Canisius to capture the title. Holy Cross began that tournament as the number-two seed.

A victory at the MAAC championships carries a little more weight now than in 1999. At stake, of course, is an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.

And coincidentally, Worcester happens to be a host in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament — specifically the East Regional. Though generally the MAAC qualifier would be sent to the West Region, Holy Cross’ proximity to Worcester, along with the NCAA’s desire to cut down on travel in this year’s tournament, might result in Holy Cross playing in front of a home crowd.

But without a doubt, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Staring Holy Cross in the face is the statistically toughest remaining schedule in the league. Crusader opponents possess a .600 winning percentage, which, benchmarked against the rest of the league, is certainly a competitive schedule. Six other schools have schedules with better-than-.500 winning percentages renaining. Bentley is earmarked with the statistically easiest remaining schedule at .469.

Regardless, right now the Crusaders can focus their attention toward Canisius. Since beating the Griffs in the 1999 MAAC championship, Holy Cross is 1-4-1 against Canisius, including five straight without a victory. Their only meeting this year was a 3-3 tie in Buffalo.

The ability to solve the Griffs would give Holy Cross the leverage to think about much bigger and much better things.

Weekly Awards

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Ryan Carter, Iona Sr., Forward, Ft. Nelson, B.C.

The MAAC Hockey League’s all-time leading scorer, Carter tied his most prolific two-game point-scoring effort of his career by tallying eight points on nine Gael goals this weekend in the two-game series with Bentley. Carter notched three goals and five assists on the weekend, earning the Gaels a win and a tie versus the Falcons.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac Fr., Goalie, Telkwa, B.C.

Holden stopped 67 of 69 shots over the weekend, including a 42-save effort in the shutout of AIC on Friday. It was the second time this year that he stopped 40 or more shots in a game, the other coming in a loss at Providence. The 42 saves tied a career high.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: David Wrigley, Mercyhurst Fr., Forward, Orillia, ONT

Wrigley ended a scoreless game with his fifth goal of the season, and first career game-winner, at 3:14 of OT to beat Canisius Saturday night.

Can The Falcons Be The Spoilers?

Last Friday night opened the eyes of many around the league when Bentley rallied from two-goals down on the road to tie Iona. Goaltender Kevin Williams posted 45 saves, recording his first non-loss in three decisions this season. The win moved the Falcons out of the lone room of the MAAC cellar and into a tie with Fairfield for the bottom spot.

Obviously, the tie sent a bit of a rumble through the league as Bentley, a team that has been the league doormat for two years now, showed signs of promise — particularly between the pipes.

“The biggest difference is [Bentley] now has goaltending,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold recently. The win-loss results, for the most part, haven’t changed a lot for Bentley, but the struggling situation for the club’s duffel bags certainly has.

Rookie Simon St. Pierre has shown his quality and impressed the coaches of the MAAC. And now as Williams steps up with a big performance, one has to ask — can Bentley be a spoiler? Certainly, it will have its chance.

The Falcons only have five opponents left of their schedule, accounting for their final 12 games. Quinnipiac and Connecticut still face Bentley three times, while the Falcons have two apiece with Sacred Heart, Fairfield and AIC. Quinnipiac and Sacred Heart are fighting for home ice as the season winds down.

A couple of wins here and there, and either of those teams could actually be challenging Mercyhurst and Holy Cross for the top spot in the tournament.

AIC, Connecticut and Fairfield, on the other hand, will join Bentley in a fight for playoff life. Current standings show Bentley tied with the Stags, though Fairfield holds two games in hand. AIC is only four points ahead of the two clubs, and UConn six points from the cellar. A win here and a tie there for the Falcons might even relegate the term “spoiler” to the obsolete.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to believe that a team with a 2-16-2 record should be mentioned in the same breath as the word “playoffs.” But the key that good goaltending can add to a lineup is indescribable.

Lakers Move Closer To Repeat

Two classic games last week brought the Mercyhurst Lakers a step closer to back-to-back MAAC championships. A 1-0 overtime victory over Canisius on Saturday night combined with a 3-1 road win in Tuesday night’s rematch pull the Lakers three full games ahead of Canisius while holding two games-in-hand.

The Lakers, who have not lost a league game, sit three points ahead of Holy Cross, which leapfrogged over Canisius with a win and tie against Army. Head coach Rick Gotkin acknowledged that a league title is once again within reach, but that the road won’t be easy.

“It’s been a real good start for us,” said Gotkin. “If we’re not successful this weekend [hosting Fairfield for two games], it takes away everything we did against Canisius. Fairfield, to us now, is the biggest series of the year.”

Gotkin believes that the Lakers’ remaining schedule is difficult. The Lakers haven’t faced preseason favorite Iona, a team that has struggled to this point in the season. A road series at Holy Cross and two games against Sacred Heart also don’t promise much in terms of victories.

But actually looking at the math (which, I realize, doesn’t mean all that much in college hockey), Mercyhurst isn’t bad off. Based on current winning percentages, Mercyhurst has the eighth most-difficult league schedule remaining. The average winning percentage of its remaining opponents is .496, considerably behind Holy Cross, who boasts the toughest remaining schedule at .600. Quinnipiac has the easiest remaining schedule at .450, and that includes one game against Mercyhurst, whose .916 winning percentage tends to tip the scales a bit in this comparison.

MAAC’s Tourney Hopes Not So (At-)Large

For the last three seasons, come February, there’s been plenty of talk about the controversy surrounding MAAC teams in the NCAA tournament. Four years ago, as Quinnipiac sat in the top ten of the PairWise Rankings, trouble brewed with the thought that, based on the NCAA criteria at the time, Quinnipiac might qualify for the NCAA tournament. The issue became a moot point when Quinnipiac bowed out of the MAAC tournament in the semifinals that year and fell out of the top 12.

Even last year, when the MAAC had a guaranteed bid to the dance, the pot stirred as Mercyhurst remained high in the PWR, meaning its loss in the conference tournament would give the selection committee something to think about — the Lakers could have qualified for an at-large bid.

This season, though, that controversy has quieted. A look at the current PWR sees only two MAAC teams even in consideration — Mercyhurst and Holy Cross. The Lakers sit 22 out of 27; Holy Cross is ranked last among 27 teams under consideration. So college hockey purists can quiet their collective roar — the MAAC will not be considered for an at-large bid.

The reason for this drastic change has been an increase in nonleague play for the MAAC, combined with little success in those games. The MAAC is 7-46-2 outside the league with only a spattering of nonleague games remaining. The record against the “Big Four” conferences is 1-23-2.

Ironically, though, even the CHA, a league that placed member Niagara into the NCAA Tournament two years ago, is unable to stir the tournament waters. One better than the MAAC, three members qualify to be ranked — Niagara (21st), Wayne State (23rd), and Air Force (26th).

The CHA’s nonleague record, though, is 35-35-2. The problem? Most of its nonleague wins have come against MAAC schools. The CHA is a mere 12-29-2 against Big Four foes.