Never in the four-year history of the MAAC have the league standings been as tight as this. Last season there was a question right up to the last week as to which teams would have home ice and which would hit the road, but for the most part that was the only thing left unsettled.
Coming into Friday, though, only four points — a deficit that can be made up in one weekend of play — separate the number-two seed from number seven. With seven teams with plus-.500 league records, the ensuing logjam that is the middle of the MAAC has brought a playoff feel into league competition a month early.
Sitting in the best position is second-place Quinnipiac. Having taken three of four points from Sacred Heart last weekend, the Maize and Blue post a record of 11-5-2 through 18 games — good for 24 league points.
This year’s biggest surprise, Holy Cross, sits one point behind Quinnipiac in third place. The Crusaders carry with them a 10-7-3 record after dropping two home games against league leader and probable regular-season champ Mercyhurst last weekend. The main issue for Holy Cross: the Crusaders are the only team in this second-to-seventh mess that has played 20 games. All other squads have played 18, meaning the rest of the league has two games in hand on Holy Cross.
The balancing comes next weekend, while the Crusaders enjoy a 12-day break. This weekend, Holy Cross plays a home-and-home with Quinnipiac that could have make-or-break implications.
In fourth place stand Canisius, Iona and Sacred Heart with identical 10-6-2 records. With eight games left, don’t expect a tie in the end, especially since five games over the next four weeks involve two of these three meeting head-to-head.
For the record, current head-to-head records for these three teams are as follows:
Canisius: Lost to Sacred Heart once (two games remaining); defeated Iona twice (one game remaining)
Sacred Heart: Beat Canisius once (two games remaining); has not played Iona (two games remaining)
Iona: Lost to Canisius twice (one game remaining); has not played Sacred Heart (two games remaining)
The remaining soldier in the pileup is Connecticut. The Huskies are all the way back in seventh place with 20 points, but still stand only four points away from second-place Quinnipiac. The Huskies, though, have the least enviable schedule, slated for two games against Iona this week, along with traveling west to Canisius/Mercyhurst next week, a two-game set with Holy Cross, and single games with Quinnipiac and Bentley.
Though, if I may make a prediction, with all the head-to-head play among these six teams, if UConn can play above .500 hockey the rest of the way, home ice is still very possible.
And just so the hate mail stays away: yes, Army is still a mathematical target for home ice, but with 15 points and having played 20 games, the future doesn’t look very bright. It gets dimmer when you realize that Iona remains twice on the Black Knights’ schedule, as do single tilts with Canisius and Mercyhurst.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Nathan Lutz, Iona, Sr. D (Mistatim, SK)
Defenseman Nathan Lutz had his finest offensive output of the season, notching four goals and an assist in last weekend’s sweep of Fairfield. Lutz picked up his third and fourth career two-goal games. Lutz fired a slapshot from the blue line on Friday night that was redirected by Erik Nates for the winning goal. On Saturday the tri-captain nailed his team-high fourth power-play goal of the year to give the Gaels a 3-1 lead early in the third period.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Peter Aubry, Mercyhurst, Sr. G (Windsor, ONT)
Aubry remained unbeaten in the MAAC with two wins on the road against Holy Cross. He upped his overall mark to 14-5-1 and his MAAC record to 14-0-1 with a save percentage of .946 and a goals against average of 1.58. Against the Crusaders, he stopped 60 of 64 combined shots (.938). Saturday’s win was the 50th of his career, second all-time at Mercyhurst.
ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Brian Worosz, Canisius, Fr. G (Brantford, ONT)
Worosz picked up his fourth win of the season, all in MAAC play, in the Griffs’ 4-1 win over Army Friday night. He stopped 27 shots, including 11 in the first period, allowing Canisius to grab a 3-0 lead after one period en route to the win. Worosz lowered his GAA to 2.11 and posts an impressive .926 save percentage in eight games.
Final Change To Final Four Is No Change At All
Having tinkered with changing the dates and times of this year’s MAAC Final Four, the league has decided that status quo is the way to go.
As in the past two seasons, the MAAC will play its semifinal matchups on Thursday night: March 14, at 4 and 7 p.m. Up in the air was the date of the championship game. Wanting the prime-time television spot for the tournament — this year being held at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the league originally scheduled the title tilt at 7 on Friday evening, even though it would be in direct competition with the Hockey East tournament in nearby Boston.
But as it usually the case, television dictated, and the best possible time for the championship remains Saturday, March 16, at noon. As they have for the past two seasons, Empire Sports will broadcast the championship game live, bringing the drama of the second-ever MAAC autobid live to cable subscribers of New York and satellite and digital cable subscribers nationwide.
This will be the first time television will broadcast from Holy Cross’ Hart Center. Though the inaugural MAAC championship game was played at Holy Cross, with the home team taking home the championship, it was before the league locked in its TV deal with Empire.
Moving Up The PairWise
Just when you thought it was safe to say that there would be no controversy in the selection process for the NCAA tournament, it seems the Mercyhurst Lakers are prepared to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into things.
The Lakers have compiled an eight-game winning streak and have been victors in 11 of their last 13 contests, propelling them from the bottom of the PairWise Rankings to a bubble position of 15th. Of course, should the Lakers defend their postseason title, the argument becomes moot as they would earn the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
But what if the Lakers run the gamut and win their final eight regular-season games, win in the first round of the MAAC playoffs, win again in the semifinals but lose in the championship game? The chance that the Lakers could stand in the top 10 of the PairWise is very good.
The above situation would clinch one of the criteria for the Lakers — performance in the final 16 games. Mercyhurst would end up with a 15-1-0 record, its only loss coming in the championship game.
You can also look at teams under consideration (TUC) — i.e. teams on Mercyhurst’s schedule with a plus-.500 record. With an undefeated slate in the MAAC, the Lakers only loss to a TUC in league would come to the eventual playoff champion — assuming that team is even above .500. Outside of conference, Clarkson, Northeastern and RPI are all hovering around the .500 number, while Niagara looks like a good bet to remain above .500. The Lakers’ combined record against these teams is 0-5-0, so consideration of these games will be crucial.
Common opponents and head-to-head don’t stand to sway for or against Mercyhurst. The Lakers haven’t played any current teams at the top of the PairWise, and said teams haven’t played a lot of games against MAAC clubs.
The final criterion — the Ratings Percentage Index — is the one automatic dropoff for the Lakers due to the relative schedule weakness. Mercyhurst’s current RPI ranks 18th in the country. Not very impressive, though the “run-the-slate” situation could improve that.
This situation isn’t a strange one for the MAAC. Before the MAAC was awarded its autobid last season, the previous two years saw Quinnipiac sit high in the PairWise late into the season and allowed critics around the country the chance to throw darts at the MAAC. The complaint back then was that Quinnipiac, or any MAAC team for that matter, couldn’t be competitive in the NCAA tournament. But Mercyhurst quieted that argument after taking Michigan to the brink last season before falling, 4-3, in the first round of the West Regional.
Granted, all of this talk is premature. The Lakers first need to win a lot of games — ten to be exact — to make this scenario come true. But on the chance that they could, it will be interesting to listen to the arguments for and against the MAAC getting two tickets to the big dance.