This Week in the MAAC: March 13, 2003

“One and done.”

No phrase in sports better sums up single-elimination playoffs, particularly in the case of the MAAC.

One loss and you’re going home, hitting the golf course, playing Wiffleball — whatever cliché you prefer to mean there’s no hockey left to be played this year.

Saturday night, “one and done” gets its ultimate workout when four teams in the MAAC will join Fairfield, American Int’l, and Connecticut on the golf course, thinking about the season past and what to do with a lot of free time.

At the same time, though, four teams will punch tickets to destiny, a trip to the fifth annual MAAC championship tournament at Army the weekend following.

Is there a clear favorite entering the playoffs? Likely not. The single-elimination format doesn’t much lend itself to favorites.

Here then is how things shape up. There will be plenty interesting in this weekend’s playoffs, but will there be upsets?

No. 8 Iona (11-21-2, 11-14-1 MAAC) at No. 1 Mercyhurst (19-12-2, 19-5-2 MAAC)
Saturday, March 15, 7:00 ET
Mercyhurst Ice Center, Erie, Penn.

Season series: Series tied, 1-1-0
November 16, 2002: Iona 5, at Mercyhurst 4 (OT)
February 21, 2003: Mercyhurst 6, at Iona 3

Playoff history: First meeting

The number one vs. eight matchup this year is likely the strangest of all time. On one side, you have a team with high hopes and expectations, the NCAA tournament in its sightlines. On the other side, you have a club just looking to play hockey for one more day.

Mercyhurst’s season of destiny — a chance to send the Lakers to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years — continues Saturday night when the Lakers host Iona. But the Gaels, riding news this week that the university will eliminate its hockey program at the end of this season, face the last game in program history every game, in particular if they should not pull the ultimate upset on Saturday night.

“I thought Iona was a dangerous opponent three days ago, and I think they’re more dangerous now,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin of the program that was compromised in university budget cuts on Tuesday. “I feel bad for Frank Bretti and his staff and the MAAC hockey league, and I really feel bad for the players.”

Iona coach Frank Bretti knows that the fact that this might be Iona’s last hockey game is already on the minds of his players.

“It’ll be a part of our makeup [on Saturday] as far as our approach to the game, but if we’re going to win the game, it’s going to be more of the way we’ve been playing lately,” said Bretti. “It’s obvious that there’s going to be no quit in us. The kids know this is about us and they want to play the game that they love.”

Both teams recognize that this isn’t a typical top seed vs. bottom seed game. Iona mustered 11 wins and 24 points in MAAC play, a record high for the final tournament seed. And all it takes is remembrance to November 16, when Iona marched into Erie and upset the Lakers, 5-4 in overtime, for Gotkin to summon in his players all the respect he needs.

“They came up here in November without a league win and beat us,” said Gotkin. “We have nothing but respect for Iona. We’re going to have to be ready to play real well.”

Playing well translates to stopping an Iona offense that moves the puck well and, more importantly, creating offense to beat the reigning USCHO national defensive player of the week, goaltender Ian Vigier.

“They’ve always been a quick transition team,” said Gotkin of a Gaels offense that averaged 3.04 goals per game in league play, fourth in the MAAC. “They’ve always been a real creative team offensively.

“Defensively if they’re stronger or weaker, I don’t know, but they’ve got some good defensemen and a good goaltender.”

What has turned out to be Bretti’s final season behind the Iona bench has already been a long one. His young team — one of the youngest in Division I — needed to buy into his philosophies and systems. That translated to the ultimate slow start, as the Gaels were winless in their first 10 games. But since the end of January, Iona has proven that the eighth seed in the playoffs might not be the most fitting by going 7-4-0 in its last 11 games.

“I had told my hockey team that this wasn’t going to be an easy season way back when they got here,” said Bretti, “but that we would stay consistent and once you understand the system it would be a lot easier. I’m really happy with the way our guys have played in the second half and quietly we were moving along pretty well.”

Now with the playoffs imminent, to survive Iona will need two things.

“To stay out of the penalty box and to finish our scoring chances,” said Bretti. Simple to think, hard to execute, but not executing will spell the end of one great hockey program.

Pick: As much motivation as Iona has, and as much as the underdog can be favored in this playoff format, there’s still no denying the depth and skill that Mercyhurst possesses. Mercyhurst, 4-2

No. 7 Canisius (12-20-4, 11-13-2 MAAC) at No. 2 Quinnipiac (20-12-1, 18-7-1 MAAC)
Saturday, March 15, 5:00 ET
Northford Ice Pavilion, Northford, Conn.

Season series: Quinnipiac leads, 3-0-0
October 15, 2002: Quinnipiac 6, at Canisius 3
January 3, 2003: at Quinnipiac 2, Canisius 0
January 4, 2003: at Quinnipiac 4, Canisius 3 (OT)

Playoff history: Canisius leads, 1-0-0
March 19, 1999: Canisius 5, Quinnipiac 2 (MAAC semifinals)

This one brings us a pair of enigmas. Quinnipiac, laden with injuries, has proved to be unpredictable down the stretch. Canisius is a self-proclaimed mystery, according to head coach Brian Cavanaugh.

“There hasn’t been a lot written about us,” said Cavanaugh, who would not comment on his first-round opponent. “People don’t know a lot about our players and they don’t know much about us and that’s the way I want it going into the playoffs.”

What is known about this program is the fact that it had some solid wins (Sacred Heart twice, Mercyhurst) and tough losses (American Int’l, Fairfield). But what Canisius gained over the season was solid experience.

“We played 36 games this year, so hopefully we can utilize what we learned,” said Cavanaugh. “We had some tough road games and played in some tough places, so hopefully that can help us.”

Going into rowdy Quinnipiac is daunting, but no more so than playing in front of 10,000-plus screaming fans at North Dakota, something Canisius did twice this season.

Quinnipiac’s home crowd may be the only advantage it will have. The Bobcats will be playing without the services of defenseman Brian Herbert and goaltender Jamie Holden, both standouts among the talent of the MAAC and both sidelined with injuries.

“Losing Brian Herbert for the season is devastating,” said Pecknold. “He ran our power play and was our top penalty killer, so we’ve spent the last two weeks trying to restructure things. Someone will have to step up to take his place.”

Pecknold admits, though, it won’t be one player who will replace Herbert.

“Herbert was such a dominant player that one guy can’t step up,” said Pecknold. “We need four or five guys to chip in offensively. If we’re going to make a good run it’s got to be a team effort.”

It won’t only be offensively where there will be a change. Between the pipes, Pecknold will have to rely on quasi-backup goaltender Justin Eddy. Eddy, who his freshman year was a standout and thought to be part of the future of the QU program, hasn’t seen a lot of play since the arrival of Holden. But, according to Pecknold, he has all the confidence that Eddy can step up to be successful in any game.

“Justin took us within a goal of the NCAA tournament his freshman year,” said Eddy. “Last year, in the quarterfinal game, Jamie struggled and we made the switch to Justin in the double-overtime win. I have full confidence that he can cover us. All through his career he’s had big games.”

But down the stretch this season, those big games may have been a bit absent. With the regular-season title in the balance and the ball in Quinnipiac’s court twice to control its own destiny, Eddy failed to pick up wins in games against Connecticut and AIC — two teams that didn’t make the playoffs. So the question that needs to be answered now is which Justin Eddy will show up?

That, along with everything else in this game, remains a mystery.

Pick: When mysteries abound, it seems fitting that my pick be a little mysterious. No seven seed has ever won a game in the MAAC playoffs, so it’s strange why my gut feeling says Canisius can win. But I believe that Canisius’ physical play combined with QU’s late-season struggles could equal a major upset. Canisius, 4-3 in overtime

No. 6 Army (15-15-0, 13-13-0 MAAC) at No. 3 Holy Cross (16-17-1, 14-11-1 MAAC)
Saturday, March 15, 7:00 ET
Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.

Season series: Army leads, 2-1-0
October 25, 2002: Holy Cross 4, at Army 1
January 31, 2003: at Army 4, Holy Cross 0
February 1, 2003: Army 3, at Holy Cross 1

Playoff history: First meeting

Being the number three seed in the MAAC playoffs has never been an enviable position. There have only been two road teams in the four-year history of the MAAC playoffs to win in the quarterfinals (in itself an amazing statistic in the single-game format). Both times, though, the upsets came in the three vs. six game.

Last year was one of those years. Holy Cross surprised by finishing in third place, a year removed from 10th. But in the opening round of the tournament, the Crusaders fell to Connecticut on a last-minute goal that still brings back bad feelings for coach Paul Pearl.

So the fact that Pearl is now looking down the barrel at Army — a team with a storied tradition, a great goaltender, and the knowledge that with one win it could play in the MAAC final four at West Point — probably doesn’t do much to settle Pearl’s stomach.

Still, the knowledge that his Crusaders will play at home seems to give Pearl and his team the confidence they need.

“The place will be banged out. It will be scary,” said Pearl, referencing what he believes will be an above capacity crowd. “We just keep piling people on top of each other in here. A game of this magnitude adds even more to it. The fever around campus will lead to that.”

That fever is further magnified by the fact that Holy Cross also hosts the men’s an women’s Patriot basketball league title games this week (Holy Cross ‘ women won their game on Wednesday and the men play Friday night).

“It’s been one exciting week around campus,” said Pearl.

But past all the hoopla and excitement is a hockey game against an Army team that won the season series versus the Crusaders. Pearl knows that if they’re going to stay alive in the playoffs, it won’t be an easy task facing the Black Knights.

“There’s only a difference of three points between the [Holy Cross and Army in the standings],” said Pearl, also noting that yours truly incorrectly picked against the Crusaders to get home ice about six weeks ago. “It’s about as even a matchup as you can get. We’re going to have to play damn well to win.”

Damn well includes staying out of the penalty box and giving the Army power play a chance to operate. In a two game weekend sweep for Army earlier in the season, Holy Cross took 101 minutes in penalties and allowed the Black Knight power play four goals on the weekend.

“We’re a very low penalized team and we can’t play out of character, because then we can’t deal with what we’re used to dealing with,” said Pearl. “If you have to kill four penalties a period, we can’t do that against anybody.”

Army coach Rob Riley believes that for his club to be successful, they’ll need to stay out of a run-and-gun offensive showdown.

“We have to make it a low-scoring defensive game,” said Riley. “They have a lot more weapons than we do, so we can’t make it a 5-3 or 6-4 game or we’ll be on the wrong side of that.”

Similar to Holy Cross, the battle down the stretch for Army was a tough one. Making the playoffs was the original focus of Army, which posted just a 4-7-0 record in the first half of the season. But strong second-half play shifted the goal to home ice.

“We’ve had a lot of pressure games,” said Riley. “After Christmas we were wondering if we were going to get into the playoffs, but had some big wins and put ourselves into a competitive position. It’s been a lot of playoff-atmosphere type of games.”

Carrying the Knights through that tough schedule has been rookie goaltender Brad Roberts, who has gained enough respect that some coaches ranked him among the league’s top three netminders. That’s something that leaves Riley a bit speechless.

“It’s hard to put into words Brad’s impact,” said Riley. “He stepped into a situation where we didn’t have anyone returning in goal and he’s had to play every game for the entire year. When we were leading this year, he closed the door practically all the time.”

What Roberts will need, though, entering this weekend is the ability to bounce back. In his last outing, the season finale versus Quinnipiac, Roberts was shelled for five goals and pulled before the end of the second period.

“I almost didn’t play [Roberts] in that game because he needed a break,” said Riley. “I didn’t give it to him and that’s what happens. But he’s remarkably focused and he’s got a routine that he gets himself into the next week at practice.

“He’s done that this week. He hasn’t had too many letdowns and he’s been able to bounce back from a loss.”

Pick: As motivated as Army is, I think the number-three seed is safe this year. Holy Cross will have the Hart rocking on Saturday to finally return to the final four. Holy Cross, 5-3

No. 5 Bentley (14-18-0, 13-13-0 MAAC) at No. 4 Sacred Heart (14-14-6, 13-10-3 MAAC)
Saturday, March 9, 2002, 7:00 ET
Milford Ice Pavilion, Milford, Conn.

Season series: Bentley leads, 2-1-0
November 11, 2002: Sacred Heart 5, at Bentley 2
January 3, 2003: Bentley 2, at Sacred Heart 1
January 4, 2003: at Bentley 4, Sacred Heart 3

Playoff History: First meeting

Long before the first puck is dropped Saturday, people were calling Sacred Heart the best number-four seed in history.

The Pioneers have shown signs of brilliance, as in knocking off Miami (a 20-win CCHA team) this season. But at the same time, they’ve struggled in league play — a loss to Connecticut, a scoreless tie to AIC, and a weekend sweep at the hands of first-round opponent Bentley.

For the team that returned the most experience in the league, a third-place finish and a fourth seed in the playoffs might seem disappointing, but not according to coach Shaun Hannah.

“Whatever type of team you have, it’s always a new team every year,” said Hannah. “There’s group dynamics that takes place and you have to gel.

“This year, like any other, we had to come together as a team and learn to depend on one another. We had to go through the wins and the losses and win in tough situations.

“We’ve been through a lot this year and they’re hungry.”

“Hungry” seems like an understatement. Sacred Heart finished its season with five wins in its last six games, including a final weekend sweep to earn home ice. All of that seems almost unfair to SHU’s first-round opponent.

At the beginning of the season, few people gave Bentley any respect. Having finished last for back-to-back season, there wasn’t necessarily a reason to believe that the Falcons could take themselves out of the cellar. And certainly there wasn’t a reason to believe they could compete for home ice until the final weekend of the season.

But that’s what first-year coach Ryan Soderquist did — pulled a struggling team from the basement not only back to the playoffs, but to the fifth seed.

After all that, doesn’t it seem like they deserve something better than to play a team like Sacred Heart?

“With the way the league has gone, does it really matter who you draw?” asked Soderquist, who as a player captained the last Bentley team to make the playoffs in 2000. “On paper, I think Sacred Heart is one of the strongest teams. I picked them preseason to win the league. That shows you how much I respect them.”

Soderquist is quick to admit that even though they’re playing in the four-five matchup, they’re an extreme underdog. But that doesn’t mean they’ re already counting themselves out.

“No way I’m going to tell you we’re a more talented team than Sacred Heart,” said Soderquist. “But we have the mentality that any chance you have to block a shot, block it. Any chance you have standing next to a guy, get a stick on him. That’s the way we win games.”

Though goaltending has been the story of the MAAC league this year, in no other quarterfinal game will it be as much of a factor. Sacred Heart’s Eddy Ferhi is a strong favorite for goaltender of the year. And Bentley’s Simon St. Pierre is coming off of a breakthrough season that has seen him move towards the top of the goaltending statistics.

“I think it’s going to be a great goaltending matchup,” said Soderquist. “Simon has played really well for us on a consistent basis. Eddy is one of the great guys in the league.”

Each team has a different philosophy to what it will take to win. Hannah believes the his club simply has to stick to the game plan to be successful. Soderquist’s is a bit more precise.

“We can’t give up any odd-man rushes,” said Soderquist. “We watched the film of our last game [vs. Sacred Heart, a 4-3 win] and we didn’t give up any odd-man rushes.”

Regardless of the results, Soderquist, the hands-down favorite for coach of the year, feels his club has already taken a major stride.

“This year was extremely important to get back to the playoffs,” said Soderquist. “After two years coming in dead last, you have to admit that there was some doubt on the program.

“For us to play the way we’ve played to get back into the playoff, it was huge. I can’t describe how important it was to get a spark back in this program.”

Pick: Bentley’s Cinderella season ends here. Sacred Heart’s depth and goaltending make the Pioneers a favorite not only to advance to the final four, but to win it. Sacred Heart, 3-1