MAAC Championship Preview

We have to endure 26 regular-season games and two rounds of playoffs to realize the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The faces in the lineups are a little different, but for the second year in a row second-seeded Quinnipiac will meet top-seeded Mercyhurst this Saturday for the MAAC championship and an autobid to the NCAA tournament.

The roads traveled to get to this point are very different. Mercyhurst was able to put the truck in cruise control about halfway through its semifinal against UConn as the Lakers won in a rout, 5-0, with goaltender Peter Aubry looking borderline unbeatable. Quinnipiac, on the other hand, advanced thanks to a hard-fought, 3-2 victory over the fourth seed, Sacred Heart, in a game that saw the Maize and Blue score all three of their goals in a 3:55 span of the second period.

What does all of that translate to? A matchup that promises to be just as thrilling as its first edition, a 6-5 win for Mercyhurst in last year’s title tilt.

MAAC Championship Game
No. 2 Quinnipiac (19-12-5, 15-6-5 MAAC) vs. No. 1 Mercyhurst (24-9-3, 21-2-3 MAAC)
Saturday, March 16, 2002, Noon
Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.
TV: Empire Sports Network, NESN (Live); MSG (Tape delay)

Fortune is looking the way of the MAAC these days. With its third year of national television coverage for the league championship game, the two best teams — Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac — are getting ready to square off.

Though this is a rematch of last year’s championship won by Mercyhurst to earn the first MAAC autobid in the NCAA tournament, the team names on the front of the sweaters is where the similarities end.

Particularly in the case of Quinnipiac, which began the year with 15 freshmen on the roster, this is not the high-powered offense that MAAC fans are accustomed to seeing. Rather, this is a club built on defense, starting with rookie goaltender Jamie Holden and moving forward to a front line that is loaded with talent still not honed.

Mercyhurst too, though having only three rookies in the lineup, has an all-new defense-first look. It’s no surprise, seeing as the Lakers have played their way to the best defense in the MAAC led by Aubry and senior captain Marc Varteressian on the blue line. The Lakers have become a team that commits to defense first. This revelation comes not really from a change in focus by coach Rick Gotkin, but more the experience that this senior-heavy club has gained and the ability to execute such a game plan.

The Lakers have made themselves dangerous because of this commitment to defense. Averaging just over two goals against per game, Mercyhurst has found its offense in capitalizing on mistake by its opponents. So it’s no surprise to hear Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold and his players say that they will have to play a near-perfect game to win on Saturday.

“I think Mercyhurst has definitely been the premier team this year,” said Quinnipiac rookie Matt Craig, who had two goals against Sacred Heart on Thursday. “We’re going to have to play a perfect game. If we come out and I’m sure the coaching staff will prepare us well [on Friday], I think if we stick to the game plan and keep our confidence us, we can do all right.”

“I think we match up well,” said Pecknold. “The big thing is kind of shutting down their transition game. They tend to score a lot of goals off the power break — the 2-on-1s and 3-on-1s and things of that nature.

“If we can get into more of a grid type of game where it’s offensive zone, neutral zone and D-zone to try to gain some field advantage, we’ll be fine. If we get into a run-and-gun affair I think we’re going to be in trouble.”

Staying away from the run-and-gun is particularly important to Quinnipiac because of depth on the bench. Mercyhurst has 18 solid skaters, rolls four lines and six defensemen all game, and will be fresh entering Saturday after an easier semifinal on Thursday.

Quinnipiac, on the other hand, skates only three consistent lines with a four-line shift interspersed into the mix. One of the few things helping the Maize and Blue will be the tournament format. Unlike other conferences that play the semifinals and championships on consecutive days, the MAAC plays a Thursday-Saturday format similar to the NCAA tournament, allowing Quinnipiac to rest a day after tough game.

“The day off is big for us,” said Pecknold. “I played three lines most of the game [on Thursday].

“I usually play my fourth line a lot more than I did, but they had a couple of bad shifts [on Thursday]. We’ll try to get a few more shifts out of that line on Saturday.”

Gotkin knows his team will be fresh for Saturday.

“We take pride in the fact that we have good depth and everyone contributes and has ownership in our team,” said Gotkin. “So obviously we felt real fresh as [the UConn game] went on. One of the keys of success was that we were able to go four lines and six D. Bruce [Marshall] shortened his bench for whatever reasons and we wore them down pretty good.”

On top of depth, also working against Quinnipiac is the experience of Mercyhurst. Not only is this a club with more seniors than Quinnipiac has upperclassmen, but the Lakers know what it takes to win.

“We get great leadership from our captains,” said Gotkin. “All the seniors have been there and gotten the [playoff] experience, not just last year, but the last couple of years. All that has to lead up to something and what we saw was a pretty good hockey game by Mercyhurst [Thursday].

“I think our guys are really focused. The mood around the rink all week long, around the hotel and on the bus, they just seem very, very focused. They’re not saying a lot and they seem lose. And I think when you’re focused and you have as many guys as we did with that focus, we play a great game.”

The Lakers also will ride Aubry, who led the MAAC in all major statistical categories for goaltenders, was named the ITECH MAAC Goaltender of the Year, and ranks in the top ten in the nation in goals against, save percentage and shutouts.

“Somehow we have to find a way to solve the puzzle of scoring on Aubry,” said Pecknold. “We’ve had some success on him. But he’s just great. I watched him in the UConn game and he’s just smooth. He’s not just a great first-save goalie. He handles his rebounds maybe better than anyone in the league, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

“Last year, we had five in the championship game on him and unfortunately we gave up six. So we need to find a way to score on him.”

On paper, this matchup may not look too good, but add in the heart, the determination and the desire of 40 hockey players and this could add up to a classic title tilt. The prize — a chance to star as Cinderella in the NCAA production of the ice hockey championship — is plenty of motivation.

“We’re at that point in the year where it’s a one-game year now,” said Gotkin. “Somebody at 4 o’clock on Saturday afternoon will be real happy because they’ll be the MAAC champion and going to the NCAA the following week. So I don’t know if there needs to be any extra motivation for either club.”

Pick: Quinnipiac has been the surprise team of this league since Christmas, but it’s still to hard to pick against a team that has Aubry backstopping it. This won’t be a cakewalk for Gotkin and his boys, and this certainly won’t be a run-and-gun affair like last year’s final. But the Lakers will still be on to the big dance. Mercyhurst, 3-2.