…And Down The Stretch They Come
With only one week left in the regular season, for once, a lot of the MAAC playoff picture is clear. We know the eight qualifiers and the fact that Fairfield, AIC and Bentley could have early March tee times, weather permitting.
Still left up for grabs is home ice. Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac have clinched. Sacred Heart and Canisius hold destiny in their hands — they each need two victories this weekend to remain home. Holy Cross still has hope. Its sweep, combined with a loss or tie by Canisius, earns it home ice. It’s even possible for them to pass Sacred Heart for third as the two clubs face off in a key match on Friday night.
The remaining three teams can battle for position. Army feels like a lock for the eighth spot and the trip to Erie, Penn., which will be a rematch as Army faces Mercyhurst this Friday night.
Iona stands one point behind sixth-place Connecticut with a tougher schedule (Canisius and Mercyhurst) than UConn (Quinnipiac and Bentley). And for the record, if Iona does finish seventh, it seems almost a penalty for the team that finishes second. There’s certainly no reward to working your tail off all season only to face the run-and-gun offense of Iona.
Looking back, there have been some big surprises. Mercyhurst winning the league doesn’t surprise anyone, but not suffering its first league loss until February 23 — that’s a surprise.
Sacred Heart’s position at this point shouldn’t be a surprise, but as quiet as the Pioneers are, they don’t carry a pack of believers. Quinnipiac, however, is a big surprise. A win Friday night would give them one less than a year ago in a season which saw the Maize and Blue dress 13 freshmen every night. That’s amazing. Holy Cross, too, has been a surprise. From ninth to possibly as high as third is a major jump in any league.
There have also been surprises of the disappointing sort. Iona’s injury-induced nosedive after beginning the season 4-0-1 has been difficult to stomach. Thought by many to be a legitimate challenge to Mercyhurst for the top spot, the Gaels didn’t get it going midseason and suffered a bad slide in the month of February. And though Fairfield has never been a league contender, the amount of promise the Stags showed a year ago gave reason to believe they would finish significantly higher than the last-place finish they are heading for.
Alas, as we come to the end of this seemingly short, but sometimes too-long season, it’s time to reflect on the best efforts. The league coaches have submitted their ballots for all-league nominations, though the announcements are still two weeks away.
Here, though, is my estimation of how the league awards should stack up.
First Team MAAC All-Stars
Patrick Rissmiller, Holy Cross: The Crusaders have done one of the best 180s in the country. The program, winner of the inaugural MAAC tournament four years ago, found itself at the low point of low points a year ago — missing the playoffs on the final weekend of the year. This year, though most prognosticators — including this one — picked the Crusaders to again get an early start to the offseason, Holy Cross has leapt not only into the playoffs, but into contention for home ice. Forward Pat Rissmiller has been the center of the Holy Cross success. It is likely that Rissmiller won’t lead the league in scoring that will likely go to Iona’s Ryan Carter. But Rissmiller will be an impact player come playoff time. Rissmiller and defenseman Tony Deluzio are the only two players on the Holy Cross roster who played on the 1999 championship team. With championship experience being the one factor missing from Holy Cross, look to Rissmiller for the leadership that could end in the NCAA tournament.
Ryan Carter, Iona: It’s hard to play hockey with a bullseye on your back. Many good players can experience this for a year or two in college after having a breakthrough year somewhere in the middle of their career. Iona’s Ryan Carter has lived this life since the end of his freshman year. Now a senior, Carter cleaned up in awards during the MAAC inaugural season of 1998-99. Registering 33 goals and 30 assists, Carter ran away with the league scoring title. Since that day, Carter has been one of the most marked men in the league. That, along with the overall parity of the league, has contributed to a dip in Carter’s scoring. Still, though, with two games left in the regular season, Carter has 93 career goals and 176 career points. After feeling like he struggled through his junior season (scoring only 33 points), Carter came alive in the second half of this season. With 40 points (18 goals, 22 assists), Carter holds the overall scoring lead. The Gaels have struggled through the second half of the season, having been bitten hard by the injury bug, with Carter firing on all cylinders, Iona becomes the league’s most-unwanted first-round opponent.
Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart: Since his first day at Sacred Heart, Martin Paquet has made a major impact on this upstart program. As a freshman in 1999-2000, Paquet scored 40 points to lead the Pioneers in scoring. This weekend, Paquet along with Fairfield’s Rae Metz and Mercyhurst’s Louis Goulet, could become the first MAAC players to lead their respective teams in scoring for three consecutive years. His scoring output may have diminished from his spectacular rookie campaign (31 points this season), but Paquet’s impact on the ice has not. Always a threat to score, Paquet is a born leader, according to his coach Shaun Hannah. Paquet’s vocal style has carried his team near the top of the MAAC standings, and could clinch the Pioneers their first home ice in the four years of the MAAC. Impressively, in comparing Paquet to players like Rissmiller and Mercyhurst’s Goulet, note that most of Paquet’s points do not come on the power play. Only 10 of his 31 points are man-advantage numbers. But three of his 13 total goals have been game-winners, making Paquet a big-time player.
R. J. Irving, Holy Cross: The defensive position was a tough call on the ballot. As hard as it is to overlook a gritty player like UConn’s Mike Boylan, the play of Holy Cross’ R. J. Irving both offensively (leading defensemen in scoring entering this weekend) and his ability to play in his own zone make him the choice. Irving has been the backbone to the Holy Cross power play, joining teammate Rissmiller and Quinnipiac’s Brian Herbert for the league lead in power-play points (20). The Holy Cross power play has been integral to the team’s success this season, clicking at an incredible 30.5 percent, second in the country only to No. 2 St. Cloud State. Irving is only a sophomore, so look to the Crusaders to continue to have a super power play for at least two more years.
Les Hrapchak, Sacred Heart: Sacred Heart is the one team in the league that seems like the quiet church mouse, but ironically in my mind joins Holy Cross with two players one my all-league ballot. Few talk about Sacred Heart as the team that will win it all. In the upcoming first round of the playoffs, many might not even give the Pioneers a chance at victory. But thanks to player like Paquet and defenseman Les Hrapchak, the Pioneers, in my opinion, should be the most-feared playoff opponent. In the words of the opposition, this coming from Iona coach Frank Bretti, Hrapchak is the “most poised defenseman in the conference.” Poised he is, and to that we should add the word “leader.” Hrapchak’s ability to move the puck and to fire a bomb from the point makes his my pick as the league’s top defenseman. Don’t be too surprised, though, to see Hrapchak not even make the MAAC All-League teams. Though this writer would vote for a solid defensive player, some may opt for the offensive defensemen like Irving and Bentley’s Steve Tobio. But Hrapchak is the complete player.
Peter Aubry, Mercyhurst: If there was a single most valuable player in the MAAC, Peter Aubry would be a top contender. I can grant the fact that he has a stellar team in front of him, one that could carry itself to another NCAA tournament bid. But no matter what team you’re on, if you lead every goaltending category (2.26 goals against average, .927 save percentage, .720 winning percentage) you are stellar. After last year’s performance in the NCAA tournament, Aubry returned this year with all eyes on him. His league record of 17-1-2 is mind-blowing. Aubry will be key to Mercyhurst’s tournament hopes.
Second Team MAAC All-Stars
F: Louis Goulet, Mercyhurst
F: Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac
F: Ryan Olsen, Quinnipiac
D: Mike Boylan, UConn
D: Steve Tobio, Bentley
G: Eddy Ferhi, Sacred Heart
Offensive Player of the Year: Rissmiller, Holy Cross
Defensive Player of the Year: Hrapchak, Sacred Heart
Goaltender of the Year: Aubry, Mercyhurst
Forward: Adam Tackaberry, Mercyhurst; David Deeves; Canisius; Ron D’Angelo, Connecticut; Greg Kealey, Holy Cross; Brandon Doria, Holy Cross. Defense: Matt Erhart, Quinnipiac; Nathan Lutz, Iona; Mike Muldoon, Mercyhurst. Goaltender: Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac
MAAC All-Rookie Team
F: Chris Garceau, Army
F: Chris Casey, Army
F: Rich Hansen, Mercyhurst
D: Mark Persick, Canisius
D: T. J. Kemp, Mercyhurst
G: Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac
Rookie of the Year: Holden, Quinnipiac
Forward: Garrett Larson, Sacred Heart; Matt Craig, Quinnipiac. Defense: Adam Rhein, Connecticut. Goaltender: John Yaros, Army; Frank Novello, AIC.
Coach of the Year
Paul Pearl, Holy Cross
In a year in which there are several good Coach of the Year candidates, Holy Cross’ Paul Pearl, in my mind, stands out. Sure, it’s easy to look at Rick Gotkin at Mercyhurst, who until last weekend hadn’t lost a league game. There’s also Rand Pecknold, whose number of freshmen in the lineup game-in and game-out made his Quinnipiac team an underdog, and Sacred Heart’s Shaun Hannah, whose team plenty lived up to preseason expectations.
But Paul Pearl surpassed expectations — big-time. Most of all, he did it battling adversity from the start. Less than a month into the season, the team lost the services of Glen Crane when the redshirt freshman was diagnosed with a recurrence of Hodgkin’s disease. Through all of the related difficulty, Pearl kept his team focused, beginning league play with a 6-2-2 record.
Pearl has done what many knew he was capable of: taken the hand he has been dealt and maximizing the effort and the heart that his players give every night. There have been ups and downs to the Crusaders’ season, but they have lived through all of that and now stand in a position to get home ice in the playoffs.
Sure makes my selection a lot easier.