We’re as close to the end as we can possibly get — at least for 10 out of the 11 MAAC teams.
Just days from now, the MAAC’s third representative to the NCAA tournament will be decided, when the MAC final four churns out a champion down in West Point, N.Y. The last two champions — Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac — are both still alive thanks to one-goal wins in the quarterfinals.
They’re joined by the Massachusetts contingent — Holy Cross and Bentley — the Crusaders a favorite to be in West Point as the number-three seed, but Bentley a surprise, knocking off Sacred Heart, 2-0, in the quarterfinals.
First things first, though. War in the Persian Gulf will have some impact on this weekend’s tournament. The fact that Army is the host will carry with it a heightened security that might not be expected. Fans are asked to arrive in West Point between 30 and 45 minutes early for security inspections entering the campus.
And as the nation’s thoughts turn toward the men and women of the Armed Forces serving our country in the Middle East, the tournament’s presence on a military campus will further underscore that fact.
Nevertheless, here is a preview of the semifinal games. The opener will be between top seed Mercyhurst and Cinderella Bentley, giving the Lakers maximum rest should they reach the final. Holy Cross and Quinnipiac will play in Friday’s late game.
Semifinal No. 1
No. 5 Bentley vs. No. 1 Mercyhurst
Friday, March 21, 5:00 ET
February 1, 2003: Bentley 6, at Mercyhurst 5
March 1, 2003: Mercyhurst 4, at Bentley 2
Tournament history: First meeting
About the only thing that the Mercyhurst Lakers and the Bentley Falcons have in common is the fact that the two clubs entered the MAAC hockey league at the same time. Each club missed the MAAC opener by a year, joining the league for the 1999-00 season, one later than the original eight.
On October 29, 1999, the two clubs faced one another for each one’s first MAAC game. Mercyhurst won that evening, rallying from a 4-1 deficit for a 6-4 win.
Since the second period of that game — during which began the Mercyhurst rally — each team has been headed in similar directions. For three years following, Mercyhurst was headed for the top of the league, Bentley for the bottom. That was, of course, until this season.
Mercyhurst hopes to make its second NCAA appearance, after it took a similar route to the finish line, once again finishing first despite a tough road that found the Lakers posting a late-season rally to the MAAC title.
Bentley, though, found itself in fifth place at season’s end. And after last Saturday’s upset victory over No. 4 Sacred Heart, the Falcons are in their first MAAC final four.
“The win last Saturday have proven to our guys that we can get it done,” said head coach Ryan Soderquist, himself the captain of that ’99-’00 Falcons team. “We had played three good games in a row but we were still questioning ourselves a little bit.”
Now, though, there is no longer a reason to question. Bentley has arrived. The Falcons still have a tough task ahead, playing the league’s best club just to earn a spot in the finals. Still, taking out one of the top teams in the league has given the Falcons some confidence.
“We haven’t been saying simply that we’re happy to be there,” said Soderquist. “With a couple of goals and bounces we could be in the finals.”
Bounces aren’t the only thing that will take the Falcons to the promised land. Soderquist knows that if the Falcons are to reach Sunday’s title game, they will have to control one of the league’s top offenses.
“Mercyhurst has two or three guys up front who are definitely the fastest skaters I’ve seen in this league since it started,” said Soderquist. “We have to make sure that when they’re on the ice we have our defensemen back to cover them. That’s a concern of ours.”
At the same time, Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin can’t ignore his semifinal opponent. If last Saturday’s quarterfinal win for the Falcons had any negative impact it’s the fact that they have alerted the remaining schools.
No one, including Mercyhurst, will take them lightly.
“We’ve told them that Bentley is very good and we know that first hand because they beat us at home 6-5,” said Gotkin, whose club advanced to the semis thanks to a 5-4 win last week over an Iona team playing the program’s final game. “If someone didn’t think Bentley is for real, they just have to look at what they did to a great Sacred Heart team last week.”
Gotkin isn’t concerned with his opponent, though, as much as he is with his own team. Execution, at this point, is what will get it done for the Lakers.
“At this time of year, it’s all the little things that you’ve perfected all year long,” said Gotkin. “We’re not going to change our system. It’s just that attention to detail that you’ve had all year long and now you need to do those things through habit.”
Still, it’s hard for Gotkin to forget the fact that the Falcons walked into his barn late in the year and stopped Mercyhurst’s winning streak — one of the few post-holiday losses for the Lakers.
“When Bentley beat us, we didn’t skate, we didn’t hit and we played very selfishly,” said Gotkin of the 6-5 loss. “We didn’t do the things that we’ve been able to do lately.”
Though it seems clichéd, it’s easy to look at this game and realize goaltending will be a major factor. Bentley’s Simon St. Pierre can be combined with heart the entire team has shown to explain its place in the final four. For Mercyhurst, rookie Andy Franck has stepped up to be a factor, stopping 43 shots versus Iona in the quarterfinals.
“We need to find a way to get some pressure on Simon St. Pierre,” said Gotkin. “We need to be hungry for pucks and rebound.”
At the same time, talking about the Iona game, Gotkin said that “Andy Franck won it for us. … He made lot of routine saves and made a couple of huge saves. They had us pinned back late in the game and he made some big saves. When you get to this point in the playoffs, goaltending is gigantic.”
That is the reason that Soderquist feels his team can’t sit back for a minute, but rather has to pressure the Lakers through the game.
“They have a lot of tournament experience, but their ‘tender is still a freshman,” said Soderquist. “He’s played very well all year, but if we can get a quick goal and jump on him a bit it would be a key point.”
“We are definitely going to play them aggressive. We have not changed our game plan against any team. We won’t doubt our systems now. We came hard at Sacred Heart and we’ll come just as hard at Mercyhurst on Friday night.
“We’re going to go at them and play to win. If that means we lose by four, let it be, but we’re not trying to just keep this close, we’re trying to win.
“If a year ago you said you can go to the final four, we’d say that we’ll take that as a buyout any day. But now that we’re there, we want to do more. If we don’t get the job done on Friday night we’ll be extremely disappointed with ourselves.”
Pick: The Falcons are playing their best hockey of the year, but Mercyhurst is still Mercyhurst. It will be close, but look for the Lakers to pull this out. Mercyhurst, 5-3
Semifinal No. 2
No. 3 Holy Cross vs. No. 2 Quinnipiac
Friday, March 21, 8:00 ET
October 8, 2002: Quinnipiac 6, at Holy Cross 1
February 20, 2003: at Holy Cross 6, Quinnipiac 4
February 22, 2003: at Quinnipiac 4, Holy Cross 3 (OT)
Playoff History: First meeting
The second half of the MAAC doubleheader doesn’t feature a Cinderella team, but two clubs looking to unseat Mercyhurst. Before that day can come, both coaches admit that they have to worry about Friday’s semifinal.
“You have three big hurdles and we’ve gotten over only one,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. “The way the league has improved in the last three or four years, there are no easy playoff games anymore.”
Most will say this is the more evenly balanced of the two semifinals. That was apparent in a late-season home-and-home that these two played, with Holy Cross winning the opener, 6-4, and Quinnipiac pulling out an OT win at home in the second game.
Both games were much different from an October game that opened the year for both teams.
“If you go back to the early-season game, the score was a little deceptive,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. “Jamie Holden had a great game and we got a few cheap goals. It’s not indicative of the Holy Cross QU matchup.”
“We’ve gotten better, but I don’t know the first game was really a 6-1 game,” said Pearl.
Regardless, as these clubs face off for a spot in the MAAC title tilt, each will have its own plan.
“[Quinnipiac] is very good at transitioning the puck,” said Pearl. “If we give up odd-man rushes, it’s going to be a very long night. They’re going to make a play and they’re going to make a good play.”
“The major two keys to our game are goaltending and special teams,” said Pecknold. “Those are the keys to our game and any playoff game — college or the NHL.”
As Pecknold mentions goaltending, that remains a question for Friday’s opener. Top man Holden has been sidelined for a few weeks with an injury and Justin Eddy — himself with playoff experience — has gotten the call. Against Canisius in the quarterfinals, Eddy shut down the Griffs after surrendering two early goals.
“Justin played great,” said Pecknold of his performance versus Canisius. “He’s got a few starts under his belt this year. We feel very confident with him in net.
“It’s not a situation where we have a [number] one and a [number] two, rather a number one and a 1-A.”
The fact that Quinnipiac has struggled down the stretch — dropping the regular-season title late in the season despite controlling its destiny — has some thinking that Holy Cross is the favorite. But Pearl cautions that QU might not be that down-and-out.
“I don’t know that [Quinnipiac] struggled as much as people think,” said Pearl. “We had a 2-12 streak in the middle of our season and in 10 of those we played pretty well.
“There’s no given that in this game that you’re playing well that you’re going to win. There are factors in this game that enable you to win when you’re not playing great, and vice versa.”
Still, at this point in the season, Pecknold wishes he could get a little more from his team.
“I think we’re hungry, but I wish we were a little bit hungrier,” said Pecknold. “We want it and have a very good shot of winning Friday and Sunday. But last year’s team was hungrier because we lost the year before.
“Saturday night, my team changed a little bit. We had elimination staring us in the face and got hungrier in that game. I felt the chemistry in my team change after the first period when they started to think, ‘Hey, this could be it.'”
That feeling will stare both teams in the face on Friday. The question is, which team will have the best reaction?
Pick: Another QU-Mercyhurst final would make for great TV ratings. But Holy Cross seems a club of destiny. Holy Cross, 3-2 (OT)
Sunday, March 23, Noon ET
TV: MSG, Empire Sports (live); NESN (tape delay)
Pick: Mercyhurst returns to the dance.Mercyhurst, 4-3