This Week in the MAAC: Jan. 16, 2003

Despite the cries that the MAAC is beginning to feel a closing in the gap from top to bottom of the league, it seems that still, as we approach the final stretch of the 2002-03 season, we’re still talking about two teams: Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst.

The two perennial powerhouses remain two of the toughest teams in the league to beat. Combined, the two clubs account for only three league losses.

And here we are in mid-January and it’s no surprise that these two clubs are the two with the most legitimate shot at the regular season title.

Quinnipiac sits atop of the league in an almost dominating fashion, holding a nine-point lead in the standings over second-place Bentley and Holy Cross, and an 11-point lead over Mercyhurst. Though that may seem insurmountable at this point in the season (and likely it is for both Holy Cross and Bentley), the Lakers have the best shot at climbing that mountain.

With this weekend’s two-game series at Quinnipiac (Friday 7 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m.) Mercyhurst has a chance to pull within seven points of the Bobcats. On top of that, the strange fashion of the MAAC schedule has given the Lakers four games in hand on Quinnipiac. Do the math — that’s a chance to make up 12 points before season’s end. So in essence, even though it’s early to say this, when it comes to Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst controls its own destiny.

But enough playoff talk. The series at hand is the highlight of a rivalry week that will also include Boston College facing Boston University and St. Lawrence playing Clarkson.

Neither coach, though, is ready to concede this series as more important than others.

“The Quinnipiac-Mercyhurst games are always a great deal of fun,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “From a coaching standpoint, they’re the best games to coach in. You have two really great hockey teams. Both have played for the MAAC championships over the last two years.

“As far as the rivalry itself, it may have been more heated when we came into the league. Now, there’s a good healthy respect for Quinnipiac, but it’s the same as any other team in the MAAC.”

This year, Quinnipiac wears the bullseye as the first-place team that Mercyhurst has worn for the two seasons past. Still, the overall feel hasn’t changed for the Bobcats.

“I don’t view these games any differently than last year when we were chasing them,” said Pecknold. “We need to get better for the playoffs and everything we do right now is to get better come playoff time.”

Some interesting facts about this series:

  • It rematches the last two MAAC championship games. The Lakers won two years ago, while Quinnipiac was on top last year.
  • The two teams, ironically, are the only two that have ever won a MAAC regular-season title. Quinnipiac captured the first two, Mercyhurst the last two.
  • It takes some serious poking and prodding, but eventually one of the two coaches will generally crack in stating the importance of these games. As much as they’d like to look at them as just two regular-season games, they simply aren’t.

    This time it was Pecknold who slipped a bit, while Gotkin stood to the party line.

    “I probably coach similar week to week, but I think my players pay a little more attention when they know Mercyhurst is coming up,” said Pecknold when asked how it feels to coach in big games such as this. “They know it’s a big game. Even the freshmen know it’s a big deal.”

    Gotkin, on the other hand, said: “Friday is the most important game only because it’s the next one. That’s them mentality we take.

    “Winning the regular-season championship would be great but it doesn’t earn you anything. If you were getting a bye or something, there would be something to put towards that.”

    I’m sure, though, that’s not what he’ll be telling his players at 6:45 on Friday night.

    Weekly Awards

    ITECH MAAC Hockey League Player of the Week: Seth Vinocur, Bentley Sophomore, D, Traverse City, MI

    In a two-win week for Bentley, Seth Vinocur collected two goals, including the game winner in overtime, and added a helper in Bentley’s win at Army on Friday. The second-year defender added an insurance goal in Bentley’s win the following night against the Cadets. His three goals and one assist bring his season totals to three goals, nine assists for 12 points.

    ITECH MAAC Hockey League Goalie of the Week: Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac Sophomore, G, Telkwa, B.C.

    Holden allowed just one goal against Iona on Friday, marking the third time this year that he allowed just one tally. He has also allowed two goals or less in six games this year. Holden has a 2.14 overall goals against average and a .934 overall save percentage. Both statistics place Holden atop the list in the two goalie statistical categories.

    ITECH MAAC Hockey League Rookie of the Week: Scott Reynolds, Mercyhurst Freshman, F, Kerrobert, Saskatchewan

    Reynolds had the most productive game of his young career as he had a goal and two assists in a 3-2 win over second-place Holy Cross on Friday. He factored in all three goals and scored his first career game winner with less than five minutes to play in the third. It was only his second goal of the season.

    MAAC Times Two?

    For everyone out there who complained about the MAAC since day one, take a deep breath. According to Commissioner Rich Ensor, the MAAC explored expanding itself and breaking into two separate leagues.

    That thought process, though, has been trashed.

    And even though it’s all now in the past, the history of what could have been merits discussion.

    The thought of Ensor and the conference was to add three (and possibly more) teams to the league. With the thought of having a 14-team or larger conference, Ensor hoped to split into two separate conferences.

    The goal, of course, would have been to earn another automatic qualifier for the MAAC. Legislation, though, hindered that and ultimately, that was what ended the thought.

    So the question you all may be asking: “What are the three schools?”

    The answer: Rhode Island, Robert Morris, and the U.S. Naval Academy. With the thought that at least one of these schools might actually still be sought to balance off the conference to a better-fitting 12 teams, Ensor said, “We have nothing on the table right now. Rhode Island was our next school that we were heavily involved in talks with and that was slowed up due to the budget constraints on the state level.”

    The thought of the MAAC wanting another automatic qualifier, some may think they are getting greedy. But according to Ensor, it’s a part of the conference’s growth.

    “The way the tournament criteria are structured now, the only way we’ll get teams in is on AQs,” said Ensor. “That was our thought process and the thought process of our conference.”

    There are currently six autobids — one for each conference, including the newly-awarded bid to the CHA.

    Dissecting ‘The Race’

    It’s now officially at that point in the season where you can start having meaningful conversations with your friends about the playoffs. The only problem with the MAAC, though, is that the standings are too close to really allow that conversation validity (there goes my point about meaningful conversation).

    Nevertheless, it’s time to look at the standings. There isn’t a ton of concern near the top. Quinnipiac, unless it self-destructs, is in the position to win its third regular-season title. Mercyhurst likely should follow right behind — given that it can take care of business in its many games-in-hand — making those two the MAAC one-two (albeit in some years it’s been a different order) for the fourth straight year.

    After that, though, I think this is nothing more than alphabet soup. There’s plenty floating around, though, and that’s where we can look.

    To start, there is a distinct middle to the MAAC pack. Holy Cross and Bentley have played consistent and sport decent, above-.500 conference records. Each school controls its home-ice destiny, while Canisius, holding a game or two in hand, could threaten. Should any of these three teams falter, plenty are there to take their places. But in my opinion, the final weeks of the season will see these three clubs battle for the final home-ice spots.

    That leaves us the “other” half, the half of the league simply fighting to see the postseason. Some shouldn’t worry about home ice. For others, it’s both the nature of the beast and the fact that they’re close enough to make the top four given the right scenario.

    Sacred Heart has to feel relatively secure about its playoff life. Tuesday’s win over Holy Cross helped give back that happy feeling. The Pioneers sit at .500 and similar to Mercyhurst and Canisius, have a lot of games in hand. To go .500 for the remainer of the year will give Sacred Heart a playoff spot and might even be good enough for home ice.

    For those who think that I skipped Army, I didn’t. The Black Knights have impressed at times this season and currently sit in a tie for fifth. The issue, though, is that the Knights have played more games than anyone in the league and have the potential to be leapfrogged while idle. The biggest weekends on Army’s calendar will be its off weekends. That will be the truth-telling time that could see the Knights get passed in the standings like a broken-down Indy car.

    This brings us to the fateful — or should be say futile — four. UConn, Fairfield, AIC and Iona are the top candidates to sit home come March.

    UConn has only put together back-to-back wins once this season and is 1-5-1 in its last seven. With an opportunity to seize some traction last weekend, the Huskies split the weekend series with Fairfield, dropping the second game in overtime.

    The Stags, on the other hand, have only four wins all season, but three in their last six games. Last Saturday’s road win at UConn, coupled with a road crushing they handed Bentley, are the right direction. This weekend’s series against Sacred Heart may validate whether Fairfield belongs in the payoff picture.

    AIC and Iona had shown signs that things were looking up — only to seem those signs change quickly. The Gaels had posted four consecutive league wins before a 4-3 loss at Holy Cross started a current three-game losing streak. Without doing the math, a quick look seems to show the Gaels have the easiest schedule of the bottom four down the stretch.

    AIC, on the other hand, is about to embark on its toughest part of the league schedule. Besides two games with Fairfield and Iona, and a single game against UConn, the remainder of the schedule is against the top teams in the league. AIC took a positive step over New Year’s when it tied MSU-Mankato on the road, but since then, the Yellow Jackets are winless in six.

    So with all of this on the table, should I take a crack at who will finish where?

    No thanks — I’m smart enough to not intentionally make myself look stupid.