This Week in the MAAC: Nov. 21, 2002

Simply Shocking

Pretty much everyone knew that Iona, a perennial contender in the MAAC going through the ultimate rebuilding year, would eventually win a game. Few, though, figured that it would come on the road last weekend at Mercyhurst.

“Shocking” is the best word to describe the fact that a club holding an 0-9-1 record could walk into one of the toughest barns in the league, stay with the Lakers for most of the game (even have a lead in the third period) and pop the game-winner in overtime.

“It was a great win for us at Mercyhurst considering we’ve always had tough games with those guys up there,” said Iona coach Frank Bretti, whose Gaels have many times played the Lakers with playoff and even championship implications. “They’ve always been meaningful games in the past and Mercyhurst has taken care of business when they’ve had to.”

Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, licking the wound a bit, had a premonition that the Gaels wouldn’t simply roll over and die.

“When Iona was coming in here, I knew that they were much better than their record showed,” Gotkin said. “All you had to do was look at their tie at Alaska-Anchorage. They came in here as a last-place team and played very well, and deserved to win the hockey game.”

Bretti, whose club generally plays well at home, noted that the distractions of being on campus were getting to his young team. So going on the road for the weekend to play Canisius on Friday night (a 5-3 loss) and Mercyhurst was a major factor in the Gaels’ success.

“We were looking for a road trip,” said Bretti. “Sometimes with home games and distractions, things can hit you real fast. When you go on the road and put everyone in a hotel, you do things as a team. You have your video session and meals together and that becomes a positive. We’ve been a pretty good team at home in the past but we were looking to get out on the road.”

The win has given Bretti’s team a bit of confidence that he’d like to see carried into this weekend’s games (a nonleague game Thursday against Massachusetts and a Saturday home game against Fairfield). But, according to the sixth-year coach, the most important change that he’s seen in recent days has been in game preparation.

“I had said before that after each week of practice, I didn’t feel that our offense felt comfortable together,” said Bretti. “It’s hard to gain confidence when you don’t enter the weekend confident.

“We still feel that if we’re able to get some cohesion going and can put in some effort we can win a game against anybody in the league. Mercyhurst is a formidable opponent, but entering the weekend we felt better about ourselves. It turned out that this weekend we scored eight goals on the road, which is fantastic.”

Bretti attributes that offensive confidence to comfort. Sporting a lineup with as many as 12 freshmen on the ice each night has forced the Gaels to try to ingrain an offense while time to hand-hold and teach the system doesn’t exist.

“With this tough schedule, a loss is a loss; anyone will tell you the same thing,” said Bretti. “You watch the film and say, ‘We could’ve avoided this and that.’

Where it affects you is that when you put some pressure on the team, and then you’ve got veterans thinking they don’t step up, and freshman feeling bad for making mistakes. And that’s affected us.”

Now, with players believing in themselves, the obvious challenge is to build off of momentum. The offense, though, isn’t the only area that needs some confidence.

Between the pipes, Ian Vigier, the player who Bretti calls his best rookie, has seen much of the time in goal. That, though, will have to change this weekend, as Vigier will be out with as the result of a concussion he suffered taking a slapshot off the head in the Mercyhurst game.

Mike Fraser, who as a sophomore two seasons ago showed signs of brilliance, was forced into action that night and played somewhat respectably — allowing three goals on 16 shots. Most importantly for Iona, though, the offense was able to pull out the victory, giving the goaltender his first win since January 12.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do [build confidence] with Mike over this weekend because he’ll be playing both games for sure,” Bretti said. “It was great for him to hang in there and get us the ‘W.'”

If goaltending and the Iona offense can come around, Iona could soon boast a record more indicative of the talent level of the team, rather than one that shows the club’s youth.

“We’ve dug a hole for ourselves and now we have to get out of it,” said Bretti. “We’ll see what happens.”

Weekly Awards

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac Senior, F, Langley, British Columbia

Herbert tallied six points (three goals, three assists) to lead the Bobcats to two wins last weekend. He had a four-point effort against Fairfield (3-1-4) in the inaugural MAAC Hockey League Challenge on Friday at Harbor Yard Arena. Herbert scored the game-winning goal, shorthanded, and added an empty-netter to seal the contest. A night later, he chipped in two assists in the victory over AIC. On the season Herbert has 5-14-19 overall and 4-10-14 in league play. Both totals lead the all MAAC players in scoring on the season.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Jason Carey, Connecticut Junior, G, Oakdale, MN

Carey tended goal for the Huskies in their first league win of the season, a 3-1 decision over Sacred Heart on Saturday. He stopped 34 shots on goal, including all 14 he faced in the third period while UConn scored three unanswered goals to rally for the win. He held the Pioneers to only one goal, the lowest by a Husky netminder this season. On the season, Carey is 2-2-0 with 3.71 goals against average and an .890 save percentage.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Ryan Swanson, Iona Freshman, D, Maple Grove, MN

Swanson tallied his first three career points in the Gaels’ weekend split with Canisius and Mercyhurst. The rookie defenseman registered a goal and two assists in the two games. His goal with just one tick left in the second period at Mercyhurst ended a streak of 39 straight Iona power plays without a goal. He also assisted an another Gael power-play goal in the third period of that game. On the season, Swanson has 1-2-3 both overall and in league play.

Streaking Ahead

Few people may realize it, but the MAAC is the home of two of the nation’s longest current streaks.

Its two front-running teams — Holy Cross and Quinnipiac — haven’t visited the loss column in a while. Holy Cross has the nation’s longest current winning streak, having won seven straight. The last Holy Cross loss came October 18, a 6-4 loss at home versus Air Force. In fact, the Crusaders’ only two losses on the year came at home, the second a season-opening 6-1 defeat at the hands of Quinnipiac.

The Bobcats themselves are riding a 10-game unbeaten streak, 8-0-2 over the stretch. That matches Colorado College’s 10-game unbeaten streak (same 8-0-2 record) for the best in the country. Quinnipiac’s last loss — its only loss of the season — came on October 11, 2-1 to Lake Superior State in the opening game of the Black Bear Classic in Maine.

Both clubs may have a tough time keeping the streaks alive, though, in the coming weeks. Quinnipiac will face Northeastern, a club that has never lost to a MAAC opponent, Saturday night. That is the middle game of a three-in-five-days stretch for the Bobcats.

Holy Cross has only a single game this weekend against Connecticut, but then travels to Findlay for two next weekend, to face a club looking to avenge a two-game sweep last season at Holy Cross.

Road Trip

Quinnipiac, having posted healthy success both in and out of league this season, will have one of its toughest tests over the next five days.

Over that time frame the Bobcats will play three road games. The only issue is the geographic location of those games.

After beginning Friday night at Army, QU faces Northeastern in Boston on Saturday night and then will play a midweek game in Orono, Maine, on Tuesday.

Head coach Rand Pecknold tried to work out a travel agenda that made sense for his club, but in the end, the only sensible solution was to return to the campus in Hamden, Conn., after each game.

“We thought about trying to find somewhere halfway between the Army and Boston to stay Friday night,” said Pecknold. “But to go from West Point to Boston, you drive five miles from campus. So we discussed it as a staff and decided to stay at home that night and let the players sleep in their beds.”

All totaled the Bobcats will travel 1,216 miles, all by bus, over the next five days.

If only there were frequent busing miles…

Southern Connecticut Hockey Taking Off

Last weekend’s Connecticut College Hockey Challenge, played Friday night at Bridgeport, Conn.’s Arena at Harbor Yard, was deemed a success by Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah — along with Fairfield, one of the night’s two host schools.

“From an event perspective, it was our largest attendance for a home hockey game in our nine-year history,” said Hannah. The overall attendance for the evening was 2,072, a little more than half of what the building’s primary tenant — the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers — average.

That, alone, may open the eyes of some in a market that is saturated with sporting events.

“I think there’s a tremendous potential for a college hockey audience in southern Connecticut,” said Hannah. “Just getting out and talking to people about the MAAC and the showcase was the challenge. A lot of people didn’t know that it was even Division I hockey.”

Hannah, alone with the other southern Connecticut schools Fairfield and Quinnipiac, hope that the education process can continue to grow in the area and develop each of the programs with it.

Quinnipiac’s Pecknold said that he would like to see the area’s lone established Division I program — Yale — better embrace MAAC hockey.

“We’ve been trying to get Yale to do something for years,” said Pecknold. “We never get past the hurdle with Yale, though, to get them to play us.”

Though not in the same proximity as the Boston schools, Yale, Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and Fairfield are close enough to do something similar to a rousing success in Boston: the Beanpot.

“We’d love to have Yale and Quinnipiac involved in a Beanpot-type atmosphere,” said Pecknold. “Look at how the Beanpot started a number of years ago. If you keep doing it over year it becomes a habit for people to go and the numbers go up each year.”

One positive sign is that Yale this season will include two MAAC schools on its schedule, Connecticut and Holy Cross. But the issue for Quinnipiac remains battling Yale’s nonconference limitations.

“With Yale only allowed to have seven nonconference games, it might not be realistic for them to play in a Beanpot-type tournament,” said Pecknold. “We’re working just to get them to play one game. It would be a great rivalry to start.”

Another first

Iona wasn’t the only club to pick up its first league win. UConn joined the Gaels on Saturday night in removing its name from the previously-winless. The Huskies used their best defensive effort of the season — allowing only one goal — to propel them to a 3-1 victory over Sacred Heart, splitting the two-game weekend series.

“UConn played a really determined and hungry hockey game on Saturday night,” said Sacred Heart’s Hannah. “It’s difficult [to sweep], especially when it’s a home-and-home.

“Every team in our league is so tough to play at home. You just have to look at everybody’s home record, and you’ll see sweeps are tough.”

Lakers Still Searching for Identity

While Iona can joyfully celebrate its first win of the year, its victim, Mercyhurst, is left scratching its head. Predicted to be first in the MAAC in the preseason poll, the Lakers have had a few bumps in the road, struggling in nonleague play. In the league, things seemed pretty solid until Saturday’s loss, one where Gotkin felt his club didn’t respect its opponent.

“We just didn’t want it bad enough,” said Gotkin. “I think we felt like we were going to show up and win.

“Bottom line is we weren’t prepared to play very well. I think we all, players and coaches have to accept that responsibility. But, the good thing is its just one game.”

A team that has high expectations, the Lakers are still faced with breaking in seven new, though highly touted, recruits. That alone, says Gotkin, is a challenge.

“We’re still trying to find our identity,” said Gotkin. “It’s a different team than we’ve had the last couple of years. Once we get going here a bit, I think we’ll be okay.”

The advantage that Mercyhurst will have in the second half of the season is that all of its games are league games. The Lakers play only seven league games before the holiday break, leaving 19 for the new year.

“I like [the fact that we have games in hand],” said Gotkin. “For us, we get to know one another on the road and in different environments and can become a team [in the first half].

“The advantage we have is that you have some games in hand, but it’s only an advantage if you win those games.”

Keep An Eye On…

Filing this week under teams to watch out for: the Canisius Golden Griffs. A club that coach Brian Cavanaugh touted before the year as young seemed to live up to that name early on, dropping six straight to begin the year.

But, with freshmen becoming more comfortable and the defense settling down, Canisius has rolled off wins in four of its last five games, including a sweep of Iona and Army at home last weekend. Dating back to last season, it’s only the fourth weekend sweep for the club in its last 21 tries.

The challenge for the Griffs lies immediately ahead. This weekend Canisius travels to play an improved Bentley team twice, and then plays six of its next seven on the road, including two-game sets at North Dakota and Lake Superior. After that, though, the Griffs can focus on league play, with 15 of their final 17 against MAAC teams.