This Week in the MAAC: March 13, 2002

Will Mercyhurst Follow Mercyhurst?

It was just about one year ago that naysayers across the country lined up to moan that the MAAC was getting an autobid to the NCAA tournament. The tournament champion, Mercyhurst, proved them wrong, taking Michigan to the brink in the first round of the West Regional before eventually falling, 4-3.

A year later, not much has changed. The USCHO message board still has plenty of messages from college hockey types who have nothing better to do than whine about whether or not the MAAC “deserves” a bid. Personally, I had a little doubt of how successful a team could be last year. This year, I’m not convinced that any of the four MAAC finalists can conquer the number-three seed in the NCAA tournament, but at the same time, I’m more than looking forward to watching them try.

All of that said, it’s time to determine who will walk in the difficult-to-follow footsteps of Mercyhurst. Looking at the field for this weekend’s MAAC final four, I’d say that a very likely candidate is the Lakers themselves. With a solid chance at repeating as tournament champions, Mercyhurst could be making the trek back to the state of Michigan, this time to Ann Arbor, for the West Regional one week from now.

But don’t tell that to three other teams: Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and Connecticut all have something to say. Each believes, as it should, that it has the chance to knock off the mighty Lakers. UConn will get the first chance as, being the six seed, the Huskies will face Mercyhurst in the semis. Should they fail, the survivor from the classic Quinnipiac-Sacred Heart rivalry, who face off in Thursday’s nightcap, will have the final chance.

The Road To Worcester

So how did we get to this point? Well, if you’re a faithful reader and you didn’t get to see any of the quarterfinal action last weekend, slap yourself silly for missing it. The MAAC accounted for the most exciting playoff hockey as the postseason began across the country last week. All four games were decided by one goal, two going to double overtime and one in overtime. All four winners rallied from deficits. Playoff hockey? I’d say so.

Top-seeded Mercyhurst thought maybe, just maybe, they’d have an easy time with number eight seed Army. Despite the fact that the Lakers lost to the Black Knights a week earlier, head coach Rick Gotkin sounded confident heading into his quarterfinal matchup. But the Knights did to the Lakers what they did to Michigan in the NCAA tournament — pushed them to the brink of breaking. Fortunately, for Mercyhurst, the Lakers didn’t break and held on for a 2-1 victory.

Quinnipiac’s time with seven seed Iona was even worse. The Maize and Blue rallied from deficits of 3-2 and 4-3 to carry a lead into the third period. But a bad bounce with 23 seconds remaining in regulation gave Iona’s Tim Krueckl the tying goal, meaning one shot would decide who survives. Twenty minutes of overtime decided absolutely nothing. But at 6:18 of double overtime, Quinnipiac’s Chris White beat Scott Galenza for the 6-5 victory, launching them to the final four for the fourth straight year.

Fourth-seeded Sacred Heart couldn’t get the job done in regulation either. Battling a tough Canisius team that jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period, the Pioneers fought back. Goals by Marc-Andre Fournier and Nick Nucther 31 seconds apart evened the game with 5:21 remaining. And thought Sacred Heart controlled the early portion of the overtime period, it would take 10 minutes and 31 seconds before rookie defenseman Garrett Larson would bury the game-winner to earn the Pioneers its first trip the to final four.

Third seed and tournament host Holy Cross has one thing going for them beginning the year: get home ice in the quarterfinals and they could stay home throughout. Problem was, no one gave their plan to UConn. The Huskies stormed out of the gate, grabbing a 5-1 lead through two periods, having the game and a final four berth seemingly in full control.

But the Crusaders wouldn’t die and rallied to score four times in the third period, evening the contest in the final four minutes. Holy Cross even controlled play for the remainer of regulation, but a bad bounce and a turnover at the defensive blue line allowed Kurt Kamienski to blast a slapshot between the legs of Holy Cross netminder Derek Cunha with 21 seconds to play. Holding off the Crusaders in the closing seconds, UConn earned its third trip to the final four, becoming the second team in MAAC history to win a road playoff game.

So now, with all four teams in place and reseeded, the fourth MAAC final four is ready to begin. So with my best prediction foot forward, here’s how this weekend’s actions will shape up:

Semifinal No. 1

No. 6 UConn (13-15-7, 11-10-5 MAAC) vs. No. 1 Mercyhurst (23-9-3, 21-2-3 MAAC)
Thursday, March 14, 2002, 4:00 ET
Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.

Season series: Mercyhurst leads, 2-0-0

Dec. 1, 2001 — Mercyhurst 9, at UConn 0
February 15, 2002 — at Mercyhurst 4, UConn 1

Playoff history:

March 16, 2000 — at Connecticut 2, Mercyhurst 0 — MAAC Semifinal

Defending champ Mercyhurst, without any doubt, is lucky to be still playing. Though you could have anticipated a route of Army last week in the quarterfinals, the Black Knights, with nothing expected of them, played without inhibition in Erie last weekend and nearly pulled off a monumental upset.

“I tell you what, we played very well [on Saturday] but so did Army,” said Gotkin. “That’s a tough number eight seed. They work very hard, they’re very disciplined and they’re in great physical shape.”

So with one Cinderella kept from the dance, Mercyhurst will again have to break the glass slipper, facing sixth-seeded UConn in the opening game of the MAAC final four.

Maybe it’s a surprise to a lot of people [that UConn qualified for the final four], but it’s not a surprise to us. We thought they were a terrific hockey team when we played them,” Gotkin said, despite having beaten UConn 9-0 and 4-1 already this year. “We think that Thursday is going to be another battle.”

The game will be a rematch of the 2000 semifinal in which UConn, then the number four seed, pulled off a minor upset beating the Lakers, 2-0. The major difference this year, though, is venue. The 2000 tournament was played at UConn, with the Huskies eventually winning. This year, the tournament is hosted by Holy Cross, the team UConn defeated last Saturday to gain the berth.

“Two years ago is a long time ago,” said Gotkin, remembering back to the 2000 semifinals. “We thought we played pretty well that night. But we thought it would be hard to play the host team.

“We were the number two seed and they were the number four seed. But it was like they were the number one seed because it was their home game.

“Holy Cross had a great season this year and I feel bad for them being the host team and not getting there. But that’s is important to us because it’s neutral ice again.”

On the other bench, UConn will be riding the high of knocking off the higher-seeded Crusaders last Saturday night in dramatic fashion. But all the positives from that game were accompanied by one negative. The performance of goaltender Artie Imbriano was shaky, to say the least. His ability to control rebounds in front and to make the big save in crunch time has put a question mark under goaltending on the UConn depth chart.

“I thought I had [our starting goaltender] figured out until the third period of the Holy Cross game,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall. “We’re watching both goaltenders this week in practice and will make a decision on Wednesday [on the starter].”

Marshall’s alternative is sophomore Jason Carey. His numbers are a little short of Imbriano’s, but he’s played well in big games. Carey made 52 stops in a 2-2 tie at Vermont this year and was the winning goalie in games against Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and Iona.

Marshall, though, is still confident in both netminders.

“We were banging out heads [on Monday] trying to figure our which goalie to play,” said Marshall. “It would be nice to be riding a number one guy in. But I feel both are number one candidates.”

Goaltending aside, Marshall understands he has a yeoman’s task ahead of him facing the best team in the league. If fact, the Huskies haven’t won a game — or even managed a tie — against Mercyhurst since the 2000 semifinals. UConn is 0-5-0 against the Lakers in that span.

“Some people say maybe [Mercyhurst] is ripe for the picking,” said Marshall. “But teams can go off and be great year after year. Mercyhurst is a quality team that keeps on winning. They’ve never gone into a tailspin. They know how to win.”

In terms of what each team needs to do to win, it’s certainly not a consensus between Gotkin and Marshall.

Gotkin knows his Lakers have to play the game plan that has taken them to this point with only two league losses.

“We’re going to have to play well in our end of the ice,” said Gotkin. “Offensively, we’ll just need to capitalize on whatever opportunities we can get. The last couple of years we’ve taken pride to how we play in our end of the ice and how that generates offense.”

Marshall, on the other hand, realizes that this could be a game of survival.

“We can’t find ourselves down two goals early and think we’re going to come charging back,” said Marshall. He also has a similar concern he did entering the Holy Cross game regarding Mercyhurst’s power play. Though the Huskies shut down Holy Cross’ league-best power play, limiting them to one goal on six chances, they now have to face a Lakers power play that ranks second in the league.

“We can’t give them any power play opportunities. Penalties are going to be called, but we can’t give them the advantage in a 1-0 game,” said Marshall. “When you get skilled kids like they have down low, they’ll find a way to tuck it upstairs quickly. We’ve got to find way to control the rebound and keep the front of the net open.”

A lot to think about for a team that enters the tournament below .500 with a 13-15-7 record. But if it all comes together, there’s a true possibility Cinderella will still be dancing on the weekend.

Pick: UConn’s offense looked impressive last weekend, but the Huskies weren’t facing a goaltender like Peter Aubry. Mercyhurst will have its chance to defend the title. Mercyhurst, 4-2.

Semifinal No. 2

No. 4 Sacred Heart (16-13-4, 15-8-3 MAAC) vs. No. 2 Quinnipiac (18-12-5, 15-6-5 MAAC)
Thursday, March 14, 2002, 7:00 ET
Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.

Season series: Quinnipiac leads, 2-0-1

November 3, 2001: at Quinnipiac 4, Sacred Heart 2
February 1, 2002: at Quinnipiac 4, Sacred Heart 3
February 2, 2002: Quinnipiac 1, at Sacred Heart 1 (OT)

Playoff history: First Meeting

Rivalries are often the greatest part about college athletics. And at no time of year is that more appropriate to talk about than the month of March. March Madness, typified by the NCAA hoop tournament, also must include conference tournaments in both basketball and hockey — often the hotbed of college’s best rivalries.

When you think of the MAAC, though, it’s difficult to perceive rivalries. The conference’s youth, and the fledgling programs represented in the league, don’t necessarily make for the greatest of rivalries.

Ironically, then, for the second year in a row, true rivals meet in the league semifinals. Last year, it was Mercyhurst and Canisius. The two western schools of the league go way back to the days of the ECAC West when the true grudge was developed.

This year, we find Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac squaring off in the marquee nightcap. Separated by only 25 miles, these two schools have really been the first rivals to develop in MAAC play. Granted that for a few years leading up to the MAAC’s formation, the two Southern Connecticut schools found plenty to fight for. But since joining the MAAC, the battle has increased, mostly due to the higher stakes.

Thursday night, the stakes will be at an ultimate level — the winner taking a trip to the MAAC championship game. It’s almost too good of a story to be true.

“It’s exciting to be in the championship tournament against our in-state rival,” said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah. “We battle in a lot of sports and the campuses really get into it. It’s going to make for exciting hockey on Thursday night.”

“We’ve had a great rivalry with Sacred Heart for a long time, even before we were Division I opponents,” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, who recently became the all-time winningest coach in school history, surpassing Jim Armstrong. “The way the league has evolved, though, we’ve established rivalries with a lot of teams. It’s not like it’s a BU-BC [rivalry in magnitude], but its still exciting.”

The matchup, though, between these two Connecticut rivals probably doesn’t seem that competitive. Since joining the MAAC, Sacred Heart has never beaten Quinnipiac, going 0-10-3 in the 13 games since the beginning of the 1998-99 season. But on the ice, the battles have always been close.

Which may prompt the question, “Is Sacred Heart due?”

“It’s been a long four year and we’ve had some ups and downs,” said Hannah. “We’ve learned from the downs and the ups have given us the fire and fuel to build our program.

“I think the history [of the series] is not a concern to us — it’s more a fuel for our fire. We’ve played really well the last couple of times we played [Quinnipiac]. We were really disappointed to not beat them in the regular season.”

Adding, though, to the history of the series against Quinnipiac also will be playoff experience. For these two teams it’s like night and day. Quinnipiac is the only team to qualify for the final four all four seasons of the MAAC. Sacred Heart, on the other hand, is the true rookie, making its first appearance.

“I think they’ll be okay with [our first final four],” said Hannah. “We’ll have a little bit of the butterflies in the early going. It will be important to keep our game simple. They’re great kids and they work hard so I don’t think it will be a big factor.

“I think last weekend helped tremendously. The game against Canisius was a great hockey game. They played very well in the first period and we didn’t play our best hockey. We were forced to find a way to play good hockey that night. Once we did, it helped us in every way prepare for Thursday’s game.”

Even though Quinnipiac has the history of appearances in the final four, though, one factor will make them similar to Sacred Heart: freshmen. Dressing a lineup that can contain up to 13 freshman, Pecknold doesn’t have a team full of players with playoff experience. Still, he doesn’t worry.

“For us, basically, we’ve got some good players -we’ve got some guys who really came on in the second half,” said Pecknold. “Last weekend, we were able to not only take out of the game the confidence we gained by winning but the confidence we played with the whole game.

“In the first period, Iona went three-for-three on the power play. But we still had the confidence that we would win that hockey game. After we gave up the fourth goal and made the goalie change we were still confident. And after we gave up a late goal, going into overtime there was extreme confidence in the dressing room before the overtime.”

But after a 6-5 victory, Pecknold is faced with a similar situation to that of UConn’s Marshall — who to play between the pipes. Last Saturday, Pecknold started rookie standout Jamie Holden, the goalie who has carried the brunt of the load this season. But after allowing four goals in the first 27 minutes, Pecknold replaced Holden with Justin Eddy. Eddy finished the game by allowing only one goal in nearly two periods of regulation and both overtimes.

“We’re fortunate to be in a situation where we have to great goaltenders,” said Pecknold. “My decision was to go with Jamie for the playoffs, but he struggled a little bit. We felt we needed to make a change and Justin Eddy came in and played phenomenally. So now we’re at a place where we won’t make the decision probably until Wednesday night.”

Regardless of who plays for Quinnipiac, Thursday’s nightcap is set up as a great goaltending duel and a fantastic hockey game. And who said it’s too early for rivalries?

Pick: Quinnipiac’s final four experience is the deciding point in this tough-to-call matchup. Quinnipiac, 4-3 (OT).