This Week in the MAAC: Dec. 5, 2002

How Legit Is Quinnipiac?

Back-to-back one-goal losses for Quinnpiac to Hockey East schools — Northeastern and nationally-ranked Maine — have left people, including yours truly asking the question: “How legit is Quinnipiac?”

It also leads to the natural follow-up question of what steps has the MAAC league made in its five years of existence in closing the gap between itself and the “Big Four” conferences.

I think it’s best to address these one at a time. First Quinnipiac.

Truly, I think as hockey fans we may have seen the first MAAC team to officially “arrive.” The Bobcats, without any doubt in my mind, are a team that can play with the big boys. I’m pretty convinced that Quinnipiac playing at the top of its game could beat any team in the country.

Simply put, they have what it takes. They understand their offensive system, they have a good commitment to team defense, they have excellent special teams and, most importantly, they have solid goaltending. This is a team that, conceivably, should not be stopped.

My first taste of the Braves came two weeks ago at Northeastern. Everything mentioned above happened that night. The offense moved the puck well and, in the zone, cycled the puck consistently. The defense, for the most part, gave up very few quality scoring opportunities, and when those opportunities arose, netminder Jamie Holden — in my mind one of the top goaltenders in the country — was there to make the save. And the Bobcats’ special teams, in that game at least, were excellent, scoring once on the power play and shutting down Northeastern’s man advantage.

On that night, honestly, I felt Quinnipiac deserved to win the game. It would have been the first win ever against a Hockey East opponent for any MAAC school. But, alas, it just didn’t happen.

Even Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder knew his team might have escaped a bit.

“They move the puck well and I thought they forecheck well,” said Crowder of the Bobcats. “I don’t think there was a whole lot of difference between us and them and we just got the break with the shot in the third period and they didn’t.”

Crowder is optimistic for Quinnipiac’s success and he feels that based on his opinions, they’ll likely see play past the MAAC tournament this year.

“Quinnipiac’s a very good hockey team,” Crowder said. “They played us tough and kept coming at us. They’re a team that’s probably going to be back in the NCAA tournament unless they get upset.”

Many, including myself, felt Quinnipiac staying with Northeastern was likely more due to Northeastern’s ability — or lack thereof, in terms of the high-flying teams in Hockey East. But just days after the NU game, Quinnipiac opened more eyes, once again losing, 2-1, to a Hockey East club, this time nationally-ranked Maine.

I can’t speak as much about the Maine game because I wasn’t there. Reports were that, once again, Quinnipiac played a decent game and had its chances to upend the defending national runner-up. Suddenly, it allowed many, myself included, to start forming more concise opinions about Quinnipiac.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the current Quinnipiac team likely is better than the Mercyhurst team that took Michigan to the limit two years ago in the NCAA tournament. Without taking anything away from Mercyhurst, the general level of play in the MAAC simply wasn’t at the level it is now. The current Mercyhurst team is likely even better than the championship club of 2001. But teams have stepped up programs over the year, with, in my opinion, Quinnipiac leading the way.

Which leads us back to our second question: Has the MAAC league closed the talent gap between itself and the “Big Four?” My simple answer: No.

This shouldn’t be taken as a shot at the league. But top to bottom, there has yet to be 11 teams that have stepped to the plate with the commitment it takes to make their programs nationally competitive. That said, teams are in many cases doing their best and it’s my belief that none of the blame, if any should be placed, can be placed on the coaches.

No, I believe that it’s the administration that must give each and every program the resources necessary to succeed on the national level. There are simply too many teams in the league that ARE taking everything seriously to allow other schools to not meet that level of commitment.

Crowder, too, sees that there is a top-to-bottom difference. But he also looks to other parts of the nation as a silver lining.

“[The success of the league] depends on the institutions and what kind of emphasis they want to put into college hockey,” said Crowder.

In specific reference to Quinnipiac, Crowder said: “Obviously, with [athletics director] Jack McDonald at Quinnipiac, hockey is very important. He’s done a tremendous job getting games on TV. They’re making an effort.

“It’s really going to depend on some of the bottom [teams] and what kind of an effort they’re going to put in. That’s going to be the tell-tale sign.”

Still, Crowder believes in the “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day” cliché.

“You talk to guys like Ron Mason out at Michigan State,” said Crowder, comparing the three-decade old CCHA to the MAAC. “When he started, he was in the CCHA and that league, when it started, was like the MAAC is now. So you can see that it will happen over time.”

Specifically, though, how far away are things for the MAAC? Five years? Ten years? Sooner? Later? Truly, it’s hard to say. The issue that I’ve beaten to death of expanding the scholarship level beyond the current 11 can even be back-burnered.

If every school in the league won’t commit to spending the resources on 11 scholarships, there’s little use expanding further to 15 or the national limit of 18. Instead of improving the league, that likely will just further create plateaus that certain schools simply won’t cross. It’s hard for anyone to expect a school that doesn’t give any scholarship money to compete with a school that gives 11, let alone 18.

Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that this is an issue that can and has been beat to death. So at this time, it’s best to simply close and give credit where credit is due. The Bobcats, for now, deserve to receive the accolades for elevating the program to the level it has reached. Other schools will follow. Soon, hopefully. And this column will be waiting at that time to recognize those efforts.

Weekly Awards

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac sophomore, G, Telkwa, British Columbia

Sophomore goaltender Jamie Holden was the star of Tuesday’s 2-1 loss at No. 4 Maine, especially in the first period. He set a new personal-best with 22 saves in the opening period. His old best was 20 in the first frame of last year’s MAAC final. Holden finished the night with 36 saves for the Bobcats. Holden has a 2.29 overall goals against average, second in the conference. He holds a .931 overall save percentage, best in the MAAC, and holds a .700 overall winning percentage, good for second in the conference.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Jason Carey, Connecticut junior, G, Oakdale, Minn.

Carey recorded 37 saves in UConn’s 3-1 loss to No. 3 New Hampshire on Saturday. He held the Wildcats scoreless for the first 29:01 of the game, then prevented New Hampshire from scoring in the last period of play, stopping 14 shots in the third. Carey has a 3.85 overall GAA, placing him 10th in the conference. He posts a .898 overall save percentage, putting him in eighth place.

ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Michael Hoffman, Connecticut freshman, F, Scituate, Mass.

Hoffman notched the Huskies’ lone goal of the game against No. 3 New Hampshire 37 seconds into the second period. He gave the Huskies the 1-0 lead they held for 10 minutes in UConn’s first-ever game against a ranked opponent. To date, Hoffman has two goals and four assists for six points. He ranks seventh in the conference and ninth overall in freshman scoring.

One Last Time

Though this week was planned to be my last column before the New Year, a change in schedule this week kept me from gathering enough material to make this much of a worthy item. Thus, I will take the option play (columnists are given the option on whether to write next week) and print one last column before 2002 closes. We’ll take a look at recapping a week full of MAAC games and look back at the highs and lows of 2002.