This Week in the MAAC: Feb. 21, 2002

Heart Loves Its Position

A question: Was I the only one who thought it interesting that two days after St. Valentine’s, Sacred Heart took control of the now-becoming-famous two-through-seven race in the MAAC?

By virtue of a weekend sweep over Iona, something most should have seen coming based on Iona’s recent play, yet very few would have ever called, the Pioneers have leapfrogged over much of the pack and landed relatively comfortably in second place in the MAAC.

Now, destiny is the Pioneers’. Sacred Heart, with two weeks remaining in the season, can control its own fate. Four wins, second place is theirs. Though, looking at the way things stack up, it might not even take four ‘W’s.

Sacred Heart stands one point ahead of third-place Quinnipiac and four points ahead of a three-way tie for fourth between Canisius, Connecticut, and Holy Cross. With Connecticut playing Holy Cross twice this weekend and Sacred Heart playing its final of three games against Canisius, chances are that two or three wins down the stretch for the Pioneers will result in a second- or third-place finish (see more below when we look at the actual math behind the playoffs).

To get to this point, though, has not been easy for Sacred Heart. Four weeks ago, with 12 games left in the season, Sacred Heart had the toughest (statistically speaking) schedule remaining of the 11 MAAC teams. At that point, the average winning percentage of Sacred Heart’s opponents was .647.

As you’ll see in the table below, that, by far, took the cake.

Team          Gms  Avg %
Sacred Heart 12 0.647
Holy Cross 10 0.618
Iona 12 0.557
Mercyhurst 12 0.550
UConn 10 0.540
Army 10 0.496
AIC 10 0.494
Canisius 10 0.469
Quinnipiac 12 0.465
Fairfield 12 0.449
Bentley 10 0.416

At that point, Sacred Heart had three games remaining with Holy Cross, two games with Mercyhurst, Canisius, Quinnipiac, and Iona and one with AIC. To even think that the Pioneers could go .500 over that stretch was bordering on far-fetched. To date, they’re 4-2-2, or .675, over that period. What remains, though, still doesn’t look easy.

This weekend, Sacred Heart makes the dreaded Western trip, traveling to Mercyhurst and Canisius. The Lakers, of course, are still without a loss in MAAC play this season, though Sacred Heart did place one of three blemishes on Mercyhurst’s record — a 3-3 tie 13 days ago. As for Canisius, the Griffs should be hungry as twice this year the Pioneers have knocked them off. The most recent battle, one day after the Mercyhurst tie, saw Sacred Heart rally for two goals in the final eight and a half minutes of regulation to tie Canisius before Garrett Larson scored 37 seconds into overtime.

If the Pioneers can take two points on the road, a bit of an easier weekend awaits in the season’s final series, against AIC and Holy Cross, which hasn’t won since January 25. Ironically, though, that Crusader win was 8-2 over Sacred Heart.

To say that home ice looks legitimate for the Pioneers might be a bit early. Even still, a home game may be the only advantage that Sacred Heart would receive. Their first-round opponent would probably be chosen from among Iona, Canisius, UConn and Holy Cross — which doesn’t seem like a great payoff for a big stretch run.

Home ice, though, is something Sacred Heart has never had. Though the Pioneers have never won a game in the MAAC playoffs, for three straight years they’ve come way too close. In 1999, they suffered their largest margin of defeat — only two goals — in a 3-1 loss at Holy Cross. A year later, UConn rallied on home ice from a 4-1 deficit to win 5-4. And last season, Iona scored a late goal to force overtime before winning four minutes into the extra session, 3-2.

With all three of those games on the road, think the Pioneers are licking their chops for home ice? Add to it a 9-1-2 record this year at the Milford Ice Pavilion. Count on Sacred Heart leading the league in desire in these final weeks.

Number-One Again — And Now What?

What has seemed like a foregone conclusion for the last month and a half is now official — Mercyhurst has captured its second straight regular-season MAAC championship. By virtue of a 4-1 victory last Friday night over UConn, the Lakers cruised through what will be the most lopsided MAAC title “race” in the four-year history. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers hold a 12-point lead over second-place Sacred Heart.

As was mentioned last week, the Lakers could become the first team in league history to escape the MAAC season without a loss. That, according to head coach Rick Gotkin, won’t be the focus for the Lakers in the closing weeks of the season.

“I think now, more than anything, we need to find a way to keep getting better,” said Gotkin. “We need to be feeling good mentally, physically and emotionally [when we get to the playoffs].”

“I anticipate our lineup to be pretty much the same, but we’ve got some guys who are coming back from injuries and we want to get them involved. We’ve also got guys who have [small injuries] and it’s a good chance to rest some guys.”

The fact, of course, the Mercyhurst has soared to the league title in record timing is comforting to Gotkin. At the same time, though, it may not be too rewarding. His first-round opponent will likely be either Army (the most likely), Iona or AIC — not exactly child’s play.

“Regardless of who we play, it’s going to be a battle,” said Gotkin. “Every game we’ve been in has been a dogfight. From the second-place team to the 11th-place team, they’ve been great games. I wish we had a bye to the championship game, but it doesn’t work that way.”

One thing, according to Gotkin, that favors the Lakers is their remaining schedule. With games against AIC and Sacred Heart this weekend, followed by road games versus Army and Iona, the Lakers will face teams with plenty on the line, keeping them sharp entering the playoffs.

“All of these teams are coming in with a lot on the line,” said Gotkin. “If we’re not ready to play on Friday night against AIC who has their whole season on the line, or against Sacred Heart who wants home ice, we’re going to get shellacked. I’d rather play them than a club whose been eliminated from the playoffs already.

“I look at it real simply — we’ve got four regular-season games to play and I want to win all four of them.”

Playoff Math

Just over a week from now, it will all be settled. We’ll know the eight teams that will play for a MAAC championship and, moreover, we’ll know which will be traveling for round one and which will have the comfort of home ice.

As it stands now, seven of the eight playoff spots are clinched. The final spot is a two-team race between Army and AIC, with Army needing only a win, a tie, or an AIC tie or loss to take the final spot. So assuming that, we have the eight teams to qualify.

On the other hand, who plays whom and, more importantly, where these games are played, is very much up for grabs. At this point, only one team has sewed up its playoff spot — Mercyhurst. The Lakers will be the number-one seed.

Not a single other team his cliched home ice, and all of the remaining seven clubs, with the exception of Army, even still have a chance at it. In assessing those odds, though, we’ll start from the bottom.

Army stands in eighth place with 19 points, three points or a game and a half behind seventh-place Iona. That deficit, though, could be made up this week as the two teams meet in a home-and-home series. From there, though, Army hosts Mercyhurst and Canisius the following weekend. Now, though, moving into seventh place is a possibly, moving any higher would require Army to win all four of their remaining games and hope that one of the three fourth-place teams (Holy Cross, Canisius, UConn) lose what remains of their schedules. The fact that UConn and Holy Cross play this weekend guarantees one of those teams will get points in the standings, making passing them impossible for Army.

Did I lose anyone there? Hopefully not, because it gets tougher.

Seventh-place Iona is reeling from the having lost four in a row and six of its last eight. At one point this season the Gaels had hopes for a championship; now they’re playing for the right not to face first-place Mercyhurst. But all is not lost. Playing the what-if scenario, if the Gaels sweep Army this weekend, they could catapult over two teams if Canisius and Holy Cross/Connecticut (remember, they play one another this weekend) were to be swept. Iona is three points behind that fourth-place threesome. One head-to-head matchup with Canisius still looms as the Gaels take on the Griffs as part of a Mercyhurst-Canisius two-game next weekend.

Now things get messy.

Fourth place, right now, is kind of like three people living in a studio apartment — there’s not enough room for everyone, and you quickly get sick of your roommates. Something here could give, as, if you haven’t heard by now, Holy Cross and Connecticut play a home-and-home this weekend. A sweep in this series gives a ton of momentum heading into the final weekend. A split may settle nothing. Canisius hosts AIC and Sacred Heart this weekend before traveling to Army and Iona next. Not the most appetizing schedule, but at the same time, not too difficult. Sacred Heart is a hurdle that Canisius would like to get past — they haven’t beaten the Pioneers this year and could potentially face them in the first round of the MAAC tournament. For confidence alone, the Sacred Heart game is a must-win for the Griffs.

Moving up to second and third place is similar to entering the high-rent district in New York City. These people are happy, they’re playing well, and most importantly, they control their own destiny. Quinnipiac, though a 4-2 loser in its last game out at Mercyhurst, has only lost one other time since January 5. Of all the schools, QU may have the easiest road remaining — two games against Fairfield this weekend and single tilts with Bentley and UConn next. Its hopes have to be on second place, only one point behind Sacred Heart and holding the first tiebreaker — head-to-head.

Which brings us full-circle to those Pioneers. Sacred Heart has done the most with a tough schedule. With the probability that the two-through-six pool won’t include Army (though this shouldn’t suggest that Army is a total pushover), the Pioneers’ first-round opponent will be tough no matter which team they draw. With that in mind, Sacred Heart’s number-one goal has to be to clinch home ice. To do so, Sacred Heart would need five more points (out of a possible eight). Four points would leave the possibility of being tied with either Holy Cross, Connecticut, or Canisius.

And while we’re talking about ties, we might as well look at how ties are broken. If two teams have the same number of conference points at the end of the season, the following is used to break the tie.

1) Head-to-head competition
2) Number of conference wins
3) Record against highest remaining seed (which in all cases will be Mercyhurst)
4) Coin flip

Taking the Sacred Heart equation, the Pioneers hold the tiebreaker against Canisius, having already beaten the Griffs twice. Against Connecticut, the Pioneers only played twice and split that series, so that’s a wash. And against Holy Cross, the Pioneers split the first two games with one game remaining.

In terms of conference wins, Sacred Heart is in good shape against UConn and Holy Cross, as each of those teams has five ties, compared to Sacred Heart’s three (which means if they are tied at the end of the regular season, it’s all but guaranteed that Sacred Heart will have the most wins). And if you math majors have followed along this whole way, two wins for Sacred Heart — with one of them coming against Holy Cross — would sew up home ice.

Hope you followed. There will be a test later.