This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 20, 2003

Staking Claim to Top Spot

Less than a week after Holy Cross, the now near-unanimous choice for top club in Atlantic Hockey, swept a two-game road series against Mercyhurst, head coach Paul Pearl seemed like a man without worries.

“How can Michael Jackson be in debt?” was the first thing out of Pearl’s mouth during one conversation.

He admits that regardless of what’s happening on the ice with his first-place Crusaders, he’s obsessed with the behind-the-music story of Jacko, his squandered fortunes and his front-page child molestation charges.

“This guy lost a billion dollars, at least. Maybe two,” he continued.

If those thoughts seem far from hockey, the fact is that Pearl and his club can breathe a little easier with a seven-point lead over their closest competitors, Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac.

The gap is thanks in part to two happenings. The obvious is the fact that the Crusaders are winning hockey games within the league. But more importantly, the club is playing a lot of league games early on.

“I didn’t even realize [how many games in hand Holy Cross has],” said Pearl. “I don’t think [winning early] gives you an edge, but whenever you can win a game you get more confidence as a team.

“If you’re looking at the standings in November, you’re a fool. Whenever we play these games we have to win them and when you do, you gain confidence when you’re going into the next.”

And at this point, it’s apparent that the Crusaders have confidence.

“We’re playing well and we have a new mix here,” said Pearl. “We’ve got middle classes all playing well and we’ve gotten good goaltending.”

The goaltending part, to some, might be surprising. Not in recent years has the Cross featured a top ‘tender like Quinnipiac’s Jamie Holden, Mercyhurst’s Andy Franck or Army’s Brad Roberts.

Rather, Holy Cross’ goaltending duo of Tony Quesada and Ben Conway have been labeled “decent” or “sufficient,” but not necessarily ones who will steal games.

“Tony and Ben are playing extremely well. They compliment one another and push each other,” said Pearl. “We’ve been rotating so far and I’m not saying I’ll do that all year, but as long as it works, we will.”

Pearl admitted to not looking at the netminders’ statistics, rather working based on feel. But it wasn’t too surprising for him to learn that his tandem’s numbers were solid. Quesada posts a 4-1-0 record with an impressive .924 save percentage and 2.07 goals against average. Conway, who was lit up in a game at Maine which skewed his stats is 2-2-1 with a .880 save percentage and a 3.57 goals against.

“I think goaltending is the one position where the stats don’t lie,” said Pearl. “Goals against is not always revealing but save percentage speaks for itself.”

As far as accomplishments, if the Crusaders’ season ended today they’d already have achieved a lot. Their 6-0-1 start in league play is their best record since joining the MAAC in 1998, bettering that year’s start of 5-0-1.

The Mercyhurst sweep in Erie was the first time the Lakers have been swept on home ice since January 7-8, 2000, when they dropped a two-game set to Quinnipiac. Ironically, that was the last time that the Lakers did not capture the MAAC regular-season title, losing out instead to — you guessed it — Quinnipiac.

Still, looking back at the Mercyhurst series, Pearl was quick to point out that the two wins by no means gives them a lock on the title.

“Mercyhurst is a good hockey team,” said Pearl. “On Saturday night, we’re up 2-0 and they’ve outchanced us and outshot us.

“So it wasn’t a situation where we’re playing well and I say, ‘Let’s get on the bus with four points.’ We had two great scoring chances that we scored on, but it wasn’t like you’re on the bench thinking that we’re a dominating team.”

Pearl is also happy to point the success finger in a few different directions. First is the club’s play at even strength.

“We are scoring five-on-five, which is very hard to do in college hockey,” said Pearl. “In the past, we’ve lived and died on our power play. This year, our power play looks like it still needs to get its feet under it, to put it nicely, but five-on-five has picked up. Not only are we scoring, but we’re playing well defensively five-on-five.

From there, he mentions a corps of seniors which has stuck with a program that at one time was the doormat of the league.

“This is a very solid senior class of kids who three years ago won nine hockey games,” said Pearl. We’ve gotten a little better each year, [though] maybe not record-wise. But a lot can be said of what they’ve done for the program.

“They’re really good leaders and really serious about what they’re doing. They might not get publicity, but they’re consistent.”

Now, Pearl will look for the consistency top to bottom, beginning this weekend with games against Connecticut and Sacred Heart.

“Winning is a huge confidence builder for us and down the road it will be good to know we can win these kinds of games,” said Pearl.

It’s becoming obvious that Pearl, too, has confidence in his team. Now if we could just work on his confidence in Michael Jackson.

Weekly Awards

Co-Players of the Week

Mike Reagan, Sacred Heart (Sr, F, Flin Flon, MB) – Scored three goals in a 4-1 win at Army on November 14, his first three goals of the season. He then scored one goal with one assist on November 15 in a 5-1 over Army, giving him four goals and one assist on the weekend.

Pierre Napert-Frenette, Holy Cross (So, F, Bathurst, NB) – Napert-Frenette led the Crusaders with two goals and two assists against Mercyhurst in the 6-5 win Saturday night. He also added two assists in Friday night’s victory, finishing the weekend with six points.

Co-Goaltenders of the Week

Frank Novello, AIC (Jr, G, Sault Ste Marie, Ontario) – Novello stopped 40 shots in a 2-2 tie against Connecticut as the Yellow Jackets collected their first point of the season. The goaltender turned away all 17 shots in the third period, nine coming on the penalty kill, and also stopped five in overtime. He has now blanked opponents on 14 straight extra-man advantages, including seven against the Huskies.

Kevin LaPointe, Sacred Heart (Jr, G, Quebec, QC) – LaPointe made 28 saves in recording his first win of the season on Friday at Army, also earned his first career point assisting on the Pioneers’ game-winning goal. He followed that with a 22-save performance the next evening as the Pioneers swept the weekend series.

Freshman of the Week

Kyle Larmon (Fr., D, Canton, MI) – Larman had a three-point week for Bentley with his first collegiate goal in the third period against Canisius on Saturday, which led to the overtime tie. Larman also added an assist on Bentley’s first goal of the Canisius game and on the second Falcon goal against UMass-Lowell on Tuesday.

Correction, of sorts

Last week’s column excerpt about Patrick Rissmiller becoming the first MAAC/Atlantic Hockey player to make an NHL roster was missing one key face. And thanks to Karen Pearl, wife of Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, it was brought to our attention.

In mentioning all of Rissmiller’s accolades and accomplishments, somehow left out was the school for which he played. That was, of course, Holy Cross.

Said Pearl of his wife: “She’s an alum, too, you know. She was class of ’89.”

Crusader pride runs deep. And it will get deeper: Rissmiller made his debut last week and to date has played two games, though without a point yet.

Trouble Deep at Quinnipiac

The Quinnipiac Bobcats are living the old adage that things aren’t always as they appear.

The average onlooker might think that the Bobcats stand in excellent shape. Their record is 3-0-0, and their overall 5-4-0 overall record included three one-goal losses — two at national power Michigan and one at Wisconsin.

But as nice as things may look from the outside, inside the locker room and coaches’ office, things are anything but.

Less than two months into the season, head coach Rand Pecknold has already lost four players for the season: junior forward Bobby Acropolis, sophomore forward Michael Bordieri, rookie forward Justin Hughes and rookie defenseman Jamie Dowheyko. School policy prevents Pecknold from disclosing each player’s injuries.

In addition, entering this weekend’s two-game set on the road versus Army Friday night and Connecticut on Saturday, Pecknold will be without the services of junior Rob Hammel and sophomore Tim Morrison.

“We have issues right with injuries,” said Pecknold, who noted that for Friday’s game he won’t have a single health scratch. “We had a really deep team this year, but with four gone, and with short-term injuries, I’m asking myself where all my players have gone.”

Pecknold went as far as to say that his assistants are working diligently recruiting, hoping to bring in more players before the second semester begins.

“This completely changes our recruiting,” Pecknold said. “Next year’s is put on hold because we don’t know who we’re going to get in January and what we’ll need next season.

“We’re just trying to survive game-to-game right now. I’ll worry about Friday and then wake up Saturday and worry about Saturday.

“We want to get through the break and get some short-term injuries back. We can’t play the rest of the year with the numbers that we have right now.”

All of this has translated most importantly to immediate adjustments.

“We’ve been plodding along and kids who weren’t going to get a lot of games are getting them,” said Pecknold. “Kids who were going to be fourth-line players now have to take different roles.

“We’re not in a position to lose another player to injury.”

Even with these problems, Pecknold tries to remain optimistic.

“I think we’re a good team and if we hadn’t lost anyone we’d be as good as anyone in the league,” he said. “Now I don’t think we’re quite there. I think we can be a top-four team, but are not as deep talent-wise as we were in the past.”