This Week in the MAAC: Dec. 26, 2002

Midseason Report Cards

Colleges may be on break, but the professor is in. It’s the time of year that I pull out my grade book and pass out first-semester grades around the MAAC.

Already, we can see shining stars. Quinnipiac, Holy Cross and Canisius are all bound to bring home good marks — and maybe even make the Dean’s list. Bentley is happy to finally get itself off academic probation, but Iona and Fairfield are in jeopardy of failing out.

American International
Record: 4-6-1 (3-5-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 9th
Current standing: T-8th

The Yellow Jackets had a semitypical first half. At times they looked impressive: a 6-2 road win at Canisius, a scoreless tie on the road versus Sacred Heart and a 6-5 win at Connecticut to close the first half of the year.

But on the flip side have been some ugly games: back-to-back spankings at Quinnipiac (9-2) and Mercyhurst (8-2) and subsequent 9-3 and 8-2 losses at home against Quinnipiac keyed that list.

When the team has had positive results there’s been one consistent factor: goaltending. In two of AIC’s three league wins, and the tie with Sacred Heart, Yellow Jacket goaltending has come up with more than 30 saves. The tandem of Chad Davis and Frank Novello has proven, at times, that the talent is there. Now, with the help of a defense that needs to limit the number of shots these duffel bags see, the mission is to prove themselves night in and night out.

Midterm grade: C-

Record: 4-9-0 (4-7-0 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 6th
Current standing: T-6th

The potential at the top of the year for Army was excellent. Returning two stellar rookies in Chris Casey and Chris Garceau, the Black Knights were thought to be developing into a solid nucleus that could compete in the MAAC.

At the halfway point, they haven’t disappointed. Though not in the race for the top spot, Army has taken a walk-before-you-run mentality, in position to battle for home ice in the latter part of the season.

The Knights hit a short skid in November, losing five straight league games. But even through that stretch they proved a competitive opponent, never losing by more than two goals.

The key to the second half will be to continue to follow the game plan of coach Rob Riley, and not get frustrated. When a team plays in as many close games as Army has, eventually they have to start winning a few.

The Knights, though, have plenty of incentive as host of the 2003 MAAC championships. Even if they don’t finish in the top four, one road win in the quarterfinals will translate to playing in front of 2,500 partisan fans for the title in late March.

Midterm grade: B-

Record: 5-9-0 (4-4-0 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 11th
Current standing: T-6th

Perhaps the biggest first-half surprise has been the play of the Bentley Falcons. A team that hasn’t seen daylight from the MAAC cellar for two straight years, the Falcons land at the break with a .500 league record.

Much credit goes to first-year head coach Ryan Soderquist, who was adamant when hired last summer that he could lead Bentley back to the greatness it achieved in Division II in the early- and mid-90s when Soderquist was a player.

Credit also the recruiting effort, which Soderquist coordinated as an assistant last season under then-head coach Jim McAdam. Rookies Ryan Meyhew and Paul Markarian have made immediate impacts, near the top of the team in scoring.

In net, goaltender Simon St. Pierre has greatly improved upon not-so stellar numbers from his freshman campaign. His .922 save percentage ranks him third, just .002 away from first, among MAAC goaltenders.

To this point, Bentley has handled league competition well. The key in the second half will be winning the games it “should” win, against opponents like AIC, Fairfield and Connecticut. Those games would account for six wins and 10 in the conference overall — making the Falcons a strong candidate for home ice.

Midterm grade: A-

Record: 6-10-0 (6-4-0 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 8th
Current standing: T-2nd

As surprising as has been Bentley, a bigger shock has been the league play of Canisius. Though traditionally a frontrunner in the MAAC, most expected the Griffs to have an off year thanks to a freshman class of nine that replaced 11 players lost from last season’s roster. Add in 11 sophomores and Canisius is one of the youngest teams in the country.

The only formula for Canisius’ success would be to receive impact performances from underclassmen. To this point, that’s exactly what has happened. The Griffs’ leading scorers — Fred Coccimiglio and Todd Bowler — are both sophomores. And the goaltender that coach Brian Cavanaugh has leaned on is sophomore Bryan Worosz.

The Griffs started the year with a tough nonleague schedule that included three games against powerhouse North Dakota before the break. Those were, as expected, all losses by lopsided scores

But in league play, the Griffs have been tough. They have won six of their last eight games, including a 4-2 home victory over preseason favorite Mercyhurst.

Originally focused on simply making the playoffs, the Griffs can now look to a run for home ice. The key for the second half will be separating themselves from a likely logjam in the middle of the pack. Doing so would assure the Griffs of not making that long trip for the first round.

Midterm grade: A

Record: 4-9-1 (3-6-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 5th
Current standing: T-8th

Connecticut held onto its traditional moniker as a Dr. Jeckyl-and-Mr. Hyde club in the first half. A club that looked stellar in nonleague play — upsetting Colgate in overtime and losing 3-1 against then-No. 1 New Hampshire — couldn’t get past AIC or Canisius at home and got blasted in nonconference games at Northeastern (10-1) and Union (8-0).

Only once has UConn, a possible home-ice contender at the start of the year, put together back-to-back wins. Those victories, though, came over Sacred Heart (3-1) and on the road versus Holy Cross (3-2).

In defense of the Huskies, they had the toughest first-half schedule in the league. The second half still sees plenty of room for improvement, particularly as they are only two points from home ice, despite their eighth-place standing.

The key for UConn will be defense. Six times in the first half the Huskies allowed six or more goals in a game — four times in league play. Goaltending has once again been split between Jason Carey and Artie Imbriano, but with a 4-5-0 record, Carey has proven himself the better of the two.

Midterm grade: C-

Record: 1-9-1 (1-6-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 10th
Current standing: 11th

If Fairfield hopes to see the postseason this year, it needs to learn one thing: how to win close games. Sporting a 1-6-1 league record at the break, the Stags have lost those six contests by about two goals per game — though one was a 6-1 loss to Mercyhurst.

Fairfield has entered the third period either tied or in the lead seven times this season, yet has suffered a 1-5-1 record in those games. The translation to that downfall can be one of two factors: the team isn’t able to finish off opponents — in other words they play poorly with the lead; or this club isn’t conditioned enough to play 60 minutes of hockey.

It’s likely a combination. Given coach Jim Hunt’s background with the U.S. National Development Program and some of the top conditioned players that came from that team, it’s hard to believe that Fairfield’s conditioning lacks that much. Still, there’s likely a need to focus some energy on preparing a team to play 60 minutes.

That includes physical and mental preparation.

The silver lining: Fairfield has been in just about every hockey game this season — something low-rung counterparts can’t say. Now the Stags just need to win some of those games.

Midterm grade: D

Holy Cross
Record: 8-7-0 (6-3-0 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 2nd
Current standing: 2nd

A season ago, Holy Cross took the hockey world by surprise, finishing second in the MAAC a season after missing the playoffs altogether. Holy Cross was a beneficiary of being taken lightly, and, at least in the beginning of the season, took advantage of that disrespect.

A season later, though, the Crusaders have a bullseye firmly planted. No team in the league will expect anything less than a 100 percent effort from the Crusaders, and to this point, that’s pretty much what every opponent has gotten.

Holy Cross at one point held the nation’s longest winning streak — seven games. But since Connecticut snapped that on November 22, the Crusaders are winless (0-5-0). With a post-break schedule that includes all but two games as league contests, the Crusaders will have to get back to winning ways quickly to keep control near the top of the tight league.

The question mark entering the year for the Crusaders was goaltending. That, though, was quickly answered by rookie Tony Quesada. He began the season 7-1-0 but suffered four of Holy Cross’ five year-ending losses. Along with the club, it will be necessary for him to get back in the win column to begin 2003 to keep the Crusader ship moving in the right direction.

Midterm grade: A-

Record: 3-12-1 (3-6-0 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 7th
Current standing: 10th

Entering the season, it was hard to expect much from Iona. Having graduated essentially an entire team in one class, the Gaels were the nation’s least-experienced club taking the ice.

Unfortunately for Iona, the club didn’t defy preseason predictions; the one-time MAAC favorite sits one spot from the league cellar.

On the bright side, Iona has charted a popular course. Few of the bottom teams have separated themselves, and Iona’s three wins put them just three points from fourth place in the biggest logjam one could expect.

So now the deciding factor for Iona will be how much “good experience” the club soaked in through the holiday break. If the youth movement can lead the way through the second half, we might see the Gaels making a run into the playoffs — a place they’ve always been dangerous.

Midterm grade: C

Record: 4-9-1 (4-2-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 1st
Current standing: T-4th

Recent memory doesn’t provide an example of the last time Mercyhurst arrived at the break with a worse record. However, no one remembers the Lakers playing a tougher first-half schedule, either.

Seven games against “Big Four” opponents didn’t exactly leave the Lakers licking their chops, but rather licking their wounds. The bumps and bruises that Mercyhurst sustained in a 0-7-0 nonleague stretch carried over into MAAC play. Still, the Lakers sit in fourth place despite having played just seven league games.

After the holiday break, Mercyhurst will embark on an enviable schedule that includes 19 games — all against MAAC opponents. The second half of the year has typically been Mercyhurst’s strongest, and this would seem the perfect time to take advantage of such history.

Still, there’s one hole that needs to be filled in the Laker lineup, and that’s in goal. The graduation of standout Peter Aubry left the Lakers to depend on Matt Cifelli, Aubry’s backup who saw limited time last season. To this point, Cifelli hasn’t yet embraced the role as go-to guy and will need to step up as the clear number one if this team is to make a playoff charge.

Midterm grade: B

Record: 10-4-1 (8-1-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 3rd
Current standing: 1st

What positive hasn’t been said about the first half of Quinnipiac’s season? Sporting a 10-4-1 record, with three of the four losses — of the one-goal variety — to Hockey East powers Maine and Northeastern and the CCHA’s Lake Superior State, the newly-named Bobcats have begun to distance themselves from the MAAC pack.

Dominant is the understatement of the season for the way Quinnipiac has played. The club has scored nearly 20 goals more than anyone else in the league while allowing just 34 in 15 games. The play of goaltender Jamie Holden has been impressive to say the least. And the ability for head coach Rand Pecknold to confidently play four lines each night would lead you to believe the Bobcats may be returning to the top of the MAAC standings come March.

The schedule ahead is still difficult. Quinnipiac will play seven two-game weekend series in league play, which are always difficult to sweep. Having played 10 league games before the break, they’ve spotted Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart three games in hand, holding a seven-point lead over each.

Midterm grade: A+

Sacred Heart
Record: 4-5-4 (4-2-1 MAAC)
Preseason pick: 4th
Current standing: T-4th

A season ago, Sacred Heart finally proved it belonged with the big boys. After earning home ice, the Pioneers survived a first-round playoff game and met eventual-champion Quinnipiac in the semifinals. Though SHU lost a tough 3-2 decision to their southern Connecticut rivals, coach Shaun Hannah was confident of that his team could return to the top of the league.

The first half has proved that Hannah may be right. Despite suffering a 3-2 overtime loss to Canisius in its league opener, the Pioneers bounced back to take nine out of 12 points in its next six league games, and stands tied with Mercyhurst for fourth in the MAAC.

Sophomore Garrett Larson and senior standout Marty Paquet have paced the offense. And heralded goaltender Eddy Ferhi — playing his final season — has looked sharp at times, particularly a 43-save overtime tie on the road at Bemidji State.

Similar to Mercyhurst, if the Pioneers are to make a run for the MAAC title, they’ll have to hit a hot streak in the second half of the year. Key weekends will be the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 series against Quinnipiac and the February 14-15 series on the road at Mercyhurst. These weekends could push the Pioneers to a title or out of home ice.

Midterm grade: B+