This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Oct. 23, 2003

Were tremors felt?

If an Atlantic Hockey team upsets a Big Four opponent and nobody is there to see it, does it make a noise?

Okay, that’s a bad cliché, but last weekend the opposite nearly rang true in multiple venues on multiple nights. The upsets were brewing like a Halloween cauldron used to scare off the five- and six-year-olds in the neighborhood.

Connecticut started the mayhem on Friday night at Rensselaer, holding a 4-1 lead with less than 13 minutes to play, only to have the Engineers construct an impressive comeback and force the Huskies to settle for a 4-4 tie.

To the northwest, in Buffalo, Canisius clung to a 1-0 lead over Lake Superior in the final minute before the Lakers pulled their goalie and tied the game with 31 seconds remaining. Another blown lead, another tie. A night later was even tougher to stomach for the Griffs when they let go of a 2-1 lead on yet another extra-attacker goal with 44 seconds remaining. This time LSSU dealt a final blow in overtime, scoring with 1:33 to play to take three points back to Sault Ste. Marie.

But possibly the most impressive result — and the toughest to swallow for Atlantic Hockey fans — happened in Ann Arbor. Against No. 6 Michigan, Quinnipiac clung to a 4-3 lead in the third period, having battled back from two goals down earlier, and from a 3-2 late second-period deficit.

All that, though, went for naught when Michigan tied the game early in the third and won it in the closing minutes as Brandon Kaleniecki scored his third and fourth goals of the game to steal a 5-4 win for the Wolverines.

Similar to Canisius, Quinnipiac saw déjà vu on Saturday night when a 51-save effort by Justin Eddy was spoiled late in the third as Michigan broke a 2-2 deadlock.

Five nonleague games, three losses and two ties.

If you’re Hockey East or the WCHA, you’re licking your wounds. But the members of Atlantic Hockey are doing the opposite right now. They’re licking their chops, realizing that the playing field is beginning to level and that the league’s better teams can hang with hockey’s top clubs.

“I think the league is getting better in increments, considering the fact that we have an 11-scholarship equivalency cap,” said Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh, bringing up a topic for debate another day.

Said Pecknold of his almost-upset (times two): “The first night proved to my players that we do belong on the ice with [Michigan],” said Pecknold. “The second night probably proves to the college hockey world that we do belong.

“We put a huge scare into Michigan on both night and gained some credibility for our program and for Atlantic Hockey.”

Said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin, a bystander as his club was off last weekend: “What it really means is that Atlantic Hockey is getting better every year. Those of us involved aren’t shocked by that. Our league is better this year and the early scores bear that out. We’re starting to bridge the gap, I think.”

The long and short of all of this is recognition. For six years now, that’s what the members of the league formerly known as the MAAC hoped for. People sat up and took notice last weekend. A few of those people, some of whom might not want to admit it, cheered for Quinnipiac, cheered for Canisius or cheered for Connecticut.

The gap is closing, but there’s still room. Amidst the hoopla of the almost, there was also a 7-0 drubbing of Holy Cross by Maine. Ironically, Holy Cross has played three league games and holds a 2-0-1 record.

And so you don’t think that I skipped over it a dozen or so paragraphs earlier, yes, I know there’s a difference in scholarships. Like I said, that’s an issue for another day. The limit won’t change this year and there’s a very good chance it won’t change next year. But teams are making do. They’re taking the talent they have and bringing every ounce of effort and determination out.

Hopefully for Atlantic Hockey, that continues this weekend. Quinnipiac has the chance to put the tape in the VCR and hit rewind — hoping this time for a different ending — when the Bobcats travel for a two-game set to Wisconsin. A rested Mercyhurst team travels to Ohio State to take on the nationally-ranked Buckeyes. Holy Cross can atone for its loss to Maine with a game at Massachusetts.

And Canisius has the most daunting of all the tasks, facing No. 1 New Hampshire at the HSBC Arena as part of the Punch Imlach College Hockey Showcase.

“I’m going to promote the fact that we’re playing the number-one team in the country for the second year in a row,” said Cavanaugh. “That’s going to help our recruiting.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Chris Garceau, Army (Jr, F, Guilford, CT) — Garceau scored the game-winning goal in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over American International at Tate Rink. The former Canterbury Prep star tipped in a shot from the point five minutes into the second period while the Black Knights were on the power play. It was Garceau’s second goal of the season.

Goaltender of the Week

Justin Eddy, Quinnipiac (Sr, G, Apple Valley, MN) — The Quinnipiac senior netminder nearly helped the Bobcats steal at least one point from sixth-ranked Michigan on Saturday night in Ann Arbor. Eddy recorded 51 saves — including a Division I record 21 in the first period — against the Wolverines. His outstanding night was the third time in his career that he stopped at least 50 shots in a game. For the season, he is 1-1 with a 2.48 GAA and a .925 save percentage.

Freshman of the Week

Jeremy Leroux, American International (Fr, F, Lunenburg, Ont.) — Played a part in three of the four Yellow Jacket goals this weekend, scoring two and adding an assist. Netted two goals, including a shorthanded tally in a nonconference loss to Union, while adding an assist against Army.

Home-ice advantage?

There are plenty of sayings about home that go way, way, way back.

“Home is where the heart is.” “There’s no place like home.” You get my point.

In college hockey, there are further sayings.

“Home ice is worth a goal for us most nights.” “We love to play in front of the home fans. They’re great.”

How that affects Atlantic Hockey is an interesting tale. Because it’s still, for the most part, an emerging conference, the number of Big Four conference schools going on the road to play an Atlantic Hockey team is small. Further complicating matters is the fact that no facility in Atlantic Hockey even meets the median in terms of Big Four standards.

So ever since October 23, 1999, when Canisius lost 6-3 at Maine, the road has been the place for Atlantic Hockey teams.

Frank Bretti, former coach of the now-defunct Iona program, always felt that the key to the MAAC, and now Atlantic Hockey’s nonleague success started with the venue. Iona got a minor upgrade a couple of years before the program was dropped when it moved into a newly-built facility, still levels below most other Division I schools. He felt, though, that his venue was good enough to host Division I games, and in January of 2001 actually scheduled a home game against Colgate.

That move didn’t exactly start a trend. Since that time, home nonconference games for Atlantic Hockey teams have been few and far between. Last weekend, Canisius hosted Lake Superior for a weekend series. Sacred Heart will host Colgate in December. Other than that, all Atlantic Hockey games against the Big Four will be played on enemy territory.

The reason? Two different schools of thought.

Money factors deeply into both lines of thinking. If a team travels to a nonconference game without an agreement for the opponent to come the opposite direction a year later, a payout — referred to as a “guarantee” — is made. So should Michigan host Quinnipiac, as happened last weekend, without an agreement to play a year later in Connecticut, Michigan is responsible for paying the Bobcats.

The amount of the guarantee varies from school to school, situation to situation. According to Gotkin it’s a negotiation process that could land up to $15,000 into the Lakers’ pockets. Typically, the bigger the school, the bigger the guarantee.

So why, then — other than the obvious reason of not having to travel — could an Atlantic Hockey club not choose to host nonleague games?

There lies the second school of thought. At an institution such a Canisius, getting a big payday through a guarantee doesn’t mean much.

“Every school has their own internal policies as to how the guarantees are handled,” said Cavanaugh. “Some schools get the guarantee to go right back to the [men’s ice hockey] program.

“For us, it doesn’t go back to our hockey team, it goes to a [general] athletic fund. So for us, it’s much more worthwhile and valuable for us to have the team come back to our place and save us our traveling expenses.”

Cavanaugh points out that his club is given an annual budget that encompasses everything from equipment to personnel to travel. Isolated in Buffalo from the rest of the league, travel is pricey for the Griffs. So anyplace that a dollar can be saved is welcome.

“You get a budget to work with and have to work within those confines,” said Cavanaugh. “If we take all of these plane trips and then all of the league trips, we could go $20,000 over budget.

“Next year we’re going to Alaska and they’re paying for some of our plane tickets. But if RPI says, ‘Here’s $5,000 for you to come here,’ and they write me a check, I don’t see any of that money.”

According to Quinnipiac’s Pecknold, Canisius’ situation is unusual — and that’s not referring to the way money is handled.

“There are very few teams that will give you the return game,” said Pecknold, noting that the two-year home-and-home that Canisius had with Lake State was an exception, not the rule. “From the established four conferences, there aren’t a lot of teams who’ll play us if they’re not at home. It’s very rare that it’s going to happen.”

In fact, Pecknold goes as far to say that he feels that playing the road games is beneficial to his club.

“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t take the [home] games, but it was a great experience for our guys to play [last weekend at Michigan]. I want to put them in pressure situations so they get used to it so when we get to playoff time it’s not a big deal.”

Looking Ahead …

As mentioned, this week continues the tough nonleague matchups. Canisius, obviously has the toughest test facing the nation’s top team, New Hampshire. But the AH-WCHA battle between Wisconsin and Quinnipiac should get some attention.

The Bobcats more than survived against an extremely tough Michigan squad last week, and now have the chance to battle Wisconsin, which has lost three straight.

“Wisconsin isn’t as established as Michigan [this season], but they have likely the best freshman class in the country, if not at least one of the top three,” said Pecknold. “They’ve lost three in a row and this is their home opener, so they’ll be fired up.”

Pecknold noted that the Olympic-sized sheet in Madison could be a be factor.

“It will be a different game on the big sheet, because sometimes we go a full season without playing a game on that size ice.”

The back-to-back goaltending performances turned in last weekend by Jamie Holden and Justin Eddy gave both ‘tenders confidence, enough that it has trickled down to the coach.

“If we get some goaltending [against Wisconsin] like we did this past weekend, we’ll be in it,” Pecknold said.

This weekend also marks the first weekend of league play for Army and Bentley. The Falcons host the Cadets in a Friday matchup that will feature two of the league’s top goaltenders in Army’s Brad Roberts and Bentley’s Simon St. Pierre.