This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Oct. 9, 2003

New top dog for Huskies?

The regular season hasn’t even begun, but there are rumblings of change in Storrs.

Despite returning two senior goaltenders in Artie Imbriano and Jason Carey, coach Bruce Marshall is impressed early on with the play of rookie netminder Scott Tomes. The freshman played a complete game in an exhibition Sunday as UConn knocked off Ottawa, 2-1.

On the night, Tomes finished with 22 saves, including 12 in a second period that saw UConn kill off four Gee Gee power plays. That, according to Marshall, was as much as he could ask.

“I thought he handled himself very well,” said Marshall, who admitted it was important to him to see how the rookie could perform. “We got outnumbered two-to-one in penalties so he saw a lot of rubber on the [penalty kill]. He handled himself well enough to be in strong consideration for starting the season.”

The performance was a glimmer of light for Marshall, following a year where goaltending was just one of the many problems on a team that, in many people’s estimation, grossly underachieved.

Last season, Marshall doubled up on goaltending, rotating Imbriano and Carey as often as possible. In the end Carey took a modest step forward, but still managed only a 6-13-2 record with an .884 save percentage. Imbriano ranked lower still with a 2-10-1 record and .864 sv%.

That left the door open coming into training camp. Still, one game won’t sew up the starting job for Tomes.

“I think ideally you would like to be able to throw one guy out there to carry the load,” said Marshall, hoping to return to having a number-one goaltender as the club did back in 2000 when Marc Senerchia led UConn to the MAAC Championship. “Maybe we need to ride a guy a little bit more in the early going. You can start with ‘X’ and let him run with it and if he’s not doing it give it to ‘Y’ and see how he can do.”

Marshall’s question to answer now is which goaltender is ‘X,’ which is ‘Y,’ and which is S.O.L.

That question began to be answered Thursday, with UConn in Amherst, Mass., to face cross-border rival Massachusetts. It’s the fourth time in as many years that the Huskies will face UMass in nonconference play.

Though UConn has never been on the winning end, there’s yet to be a blowout in the series. UConn tied the Minutemen in their first meeting, 2-2 (11/16/00), rallied to a 6-5 defeat two years ago (11/21/01) and saw a 6-5 third-period deficit turn to an 8-6 loss last season (2/14/03).

The proximity of the two schools and the excitement behind the game suggests that the UConn-UMass hockey game could someday compare to the rivalry between the two in basketball. But, according to Marshall, one thing needs to happen first.

“Stealing a line from [Boston College football coach] Tom O’Brien when he talked about a potential rivalry with UConn, he said, ‘It’s not a rivalry to me until the other team comes in and beats you.'”

Still, plenty of excitement will surround this year’s meeting. The game is being billed by UMass as “Operation 8K,” referring to the effort to get attendance over 8,000 and break the single-game mark at the Mullins Center set against Boston University back in 1995.

Different year, same result

It’s been three years since Mercyhurst put the fear of God into the Michigan Wolverines in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Leading, 4-3, midway through their first round NCAA tournament game, the Lakers ended up surrendering the lead in Grand Rapids, Mich., and ultimately the game in a 5-4 loss.

The result, though tough to swallow, was a moral victory for Mercyhurst and the then-MAAC league. Amid expectations of a blowout in a game in which many questioned whether the league even deserved a bid to the NCAAs, Mercyhurst woke up much of the hockey nation to the fact that MAAC teams could skate with the big boys.

Last weekend was the first time that the two clubs met since that fateful night. This time the situation was the opposite — particularly the fact that it was Mercyhurst’s first game of the season after skating less than a full week of practice. This time there were no stakes — a loss didn’t end anyone’s season.

No different, though, was the outcome. Jumping out to a 5-1 lead, Michigan staved off a hungry Lakers team in the third period and won, 5-3.

According to Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, he got from his players exactly what he hoped.

“Michigan got a couple of goals and our guys kept at it,” said Gotkin. “You take away the talent difference between Michigan and Mercyhurst — and there’s a big talent difference between the two — and I thought we played well. I thought we played better Saturday night than we did against Michigan in Grand Rapids in 2001.”

A bold statement, but one supported by truth. The Lakers are a different team than three years ago. Most would argue the talent level has risen, but at this early juncture of the season that’s nearly impossible to judge.

What was easy to see, though, was the fact that Lakers never packed it in. After falling behind, 3-1, Mercyhurst escaped from the second period without further blemish. Though they surrendered two early goals in the third, the Lakers kept fighting and that was what Gotkin liked best.

“We just wanted to compete every shift and we did that most of the game,” said Gotkin. “If we can play that way every night, we’re going to win a lot of hockey games. That’s the trick to this thing we call coaching, though — to get them to play that way every night. Some nights it’s just easier than others.”

The difference came on special teams. Michigan was three-for-six on the power play, while the Lakers were held scoreless. Though not what Gotkin prefers, that won’t send up any red flags yet.

“The power play and the penalty kill really was the difference,” Gotkin said. “That’s something that takes time to come around and we know it will. It’s just a question of getting in sync.”

Looking further to take positives from the game, Gotkin said that he was impressed in watching some of his freshmen get their first taste of college action. Among the first-year players, Scott Champagne, Kyle Gourgon, Pat Henk, and Jamie Hunt “really stood out,” according to the coach.

What’s good news for the Lakers, of course, is that time is now on their side. After the transition from practice to game in a not-so-preferable timeframe, Mercyhurst will wait nearly three weeks before its next game, an October 24 date at Ohio State. The Lakers will face Brock this weekend in an exhibition.

“This is where the schedule favors us,” said Gotkin. “We can take the things we learned from the Michigan game and work on them in the next couple of weeks.”

Light fare

With starts of seasons staggered throughout the league, early action — particularly this weekend — is a bit scarce.

The highlight of the week’s schedule is the Quinnipiac Cup featuring Air Force, Bentley, AIC and host Quinnipiac. This marks the eighth year of the Q-Cup, Quinnipiac’s own born and bred preseason tournament. Quinnipiac has won five of the first seven editions, including the last three years. The past two years, the tournament field has not been exactly top-notch, with Quinnipiac inviting the now-defunct Fairfield program. This year, Fairfield is replaced by Air Force, and Bentley is better-regarded after last season’s successes.

Outside of the Q-Cup, there are three nonconference matchups and one conference series — the first of the inaugural Atlantic Hockey season. As mentioned, UConn will play border rival UMass while Sacred Heart takes a Hockey East twin dip, facing Merrimack Friday and Providence Saturday.

Holy Cross, on the other hand, will travel to Canisius for a two-game Saturday-Sunday series with the Griffs. Not part of the original plan for either school, Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl said that he asked Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh to switch the series from later in the season to early October to ease travel in the Crusaders’ second-half schedule.