This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 27, 2003

Keeping With Tradition

Sitting here this Thanksgiving, I remember four years ago to November of 1999. It was my first full year covering the MAAC for USCHO. As Tuesday and Wednesday of that week arrived and it was time to pull together a column, I came to a realization.

Coaches are hard to get in touch with on Thanksgiving week.

It became clear to me that if I were going to have a column that week, it was not going to be based on words from the mouths of the league’s hockey deans.

As so, way back then (it really does seem like a long time ago) I decided to speculate about what the coaches and administrators of the MAAC had to be thankful about at this time of year.

So as we dawn on this new age of the league — the Atlantic Hockey era — who am I to break such a tradition?

And so, here you have it — the 2003 version — and inaugural Atlantic Hockey edition — of what our coaches have to be thankful for:

We’ll start with American International coach Gary Wright. College hockey’s all-around good guy is thankful for the same thing I am: the fact his club captured its first win this past week. Trust me, I’m happy as pie for Wright if for no other reason than the fact that all losses heading into this week would’ve made it difficult to write anything nice.

Wright’s squad, though, went above the call of duty — not just winning its first game, but this past Tuesday beginning a winning streak. Wins over Army and Bentley have pulled the Yellow Jackets from the league cellar all the way up to seventh place. Goaltender Frank Novello proved that he’s a force to beat (not that we didn’t know that after some of his past performances) in the wins over Army and Bentley.

Moving south, UConn head coach Bruce Marshall will give thanks this holiday for the outstanding play of rookie netminder Scott Tomes. The Huskies, who a season ago should have earned the award for the nation’s biggest underachievers, have at times this year shown signs of brilliance. Some of that credit has to be given to Tomes, who has begun to solidify the Huskies between the pipes.

A 36-save performance in a 4-1 win at Alabama-Huntsville and a more recent 31-save effort in an upset of Bemidji State on Tuesday has undoubtedly earned the rookie the number one job between the pipes. What’s still to be seen is how he’ll handle the pressure of the stretch run — though my estimations are that this young gun will be as cool as the ice on which he skates.

Up in Buffalo, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh. A 1-7-5 record at the Thanksgiving holiday may sound bad, but needs some explanation. The Griffs have looked impressive at times in battling a tough non-league schedule. Back-to-back nights they let slip games to Lake Superior State, managing only one out of four points on the weekend.

But impressive ties against Mass.-Lowell and this past weekend against Findlay have to give Cavanaugh hope heading toward the Christmas break and the season’s second half. At this point, though, he is thankful that most of his non-league schedule is over save a two-game home-and-home with cross-town rival Niagara. Don’t be overly surprised, though, if this young Griffs team looks a bit more settled in the second half of the season.

Staying west in Erie, Pa., Rick Gotkin and his Lakers have plenty to give thanks for this season. Non-league success, something that Gotkin has long bantered about, is beginning to come for the Lakers. Wins against nationally-ranked Ohio State and last weekend against Western Michigan have opened eyes to a Lakers club that has to be considered, once again, a favorite in Atlantic Hockey.

Between now and the New Year, though, Gotkin’s schedule doesn’t get much easier. This weekend’s solo game at Cornell is joined by a single game at St. Lawrence in mid-December, a visit to the RPI tournament after Christmas and a two-game set at Clarkson in January. The Lakers could sit below .500 entering the final two months of the season, but could have an impressive record in the league to capture their fourth straight title.

Army coach Rob Riley should probably be one of the league’s most thankful coaches. His reasons for thanksgiving came before the first puck was even dropped on the Atlantic Hockey league season. When the league decided to award Army’s Tate Rink in West Point, N.Y., to host the entire league championships this season, Riley had to feel like he got an early Christmas present.

League administrators decided that not only would Army host the tournament but that all nine teams would qualify, giving Riley one guarantee: if his team can put together a decent winning streak on home ice in early-to-mid March, the Black Knights will make their first ever NCAA tournament appearance. What Riley would appreciate just as much as a late-season winning streak is one a little sooner. After winning two exhibition games and its first two regular-season contests, the Black Knights have seen the win column only once in the last month.

I’d love to say that Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist is sitting down this Thanksgiving thankful for another successful season, but to this point, his Falcons have struggled to find the win column. Bentley hasn’t won since the consolation game of the Q-Cup tournament on October 11, and is yet to pick up a win in Atlantic Hockey play.

The bright side, if there is one, to this equation is the fact that Bentley has played every single opponent tough. Only once, a 5-1 loss to Army, did the Falcons lose by more than three goals, four times they’ve lost by a single goal and twice they’ve earned overtime ties. The translation is that if Bentley can pick up a couple of wins — relearning how to win in the process — it might just be like riding a bike. If that’s the case, look for the Falcons to make a nice second-half run.

Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah can relate to that. His Pioneers were winless entering a mid-November weekend series at Army, but since that time have lost only once. A 4-1-0 record in their last five games includes Tuesday night’s upset of Holy Cross on home ice. It impressively comes just days after the Pioneers blew a two-goal third period lead in Worcester and eventually lost, 6-5 in overtime. Hannah is giving thanks for the ability to land a player such as rookie Peter Giatrelis, who right now shares the team lead in scoring with senior Mike Regan. A .916 save percentage for netminder Kevin LaPointe is also reason for Hannah to smile.

Which leaves two of the league’s top teams still to talk about: Quinnipiac and Holy Cross.

Crusaders coach Paul Pearl has to be giving thanks for his club’s hot start this season; that, despite the 2-1 loss to Sacred Heart to give the Crusaders its first league defeat. Many are surprised by Holy Cross’ record at Thanksgiving, but not if you’ve listened to Pearl for the last few years.

These Crusaders, particularly the senior class, have turned around a program that was 8-22-2 when they were freshmen, and now is a contender for the league title and the club’s first NCAA berth. Recruiting will get a boost from alumni Pat Rissmiller, who became the first MAAC/Atlantic Hockey player to play in the NHL when he laced up his skates for the San Jose Sharks earlier this month.

Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold is not only thankful, he’s breathing deeply that his club is still unbeaten in league play. For what seems like the millionth consecutive season, the Bobcats have already been bitten hard by the injury bug, with four players lost for the year. Still, Quinnipiac trudges on, thanks very much to the well-known goaltending tandem of Justin Eddy and Jamie Holden.

This is a school that doesn’t have a number one and number two goalie. They don’t even have a 1 and 1-A. The Bobcats have two legitimate number one netminders with five years and countless big games of experience. This weekend could be a milestone one for the Bobcats if they can overcome injuries. Quinnipiac will play a two-game set against a struggling Merrimack team in which a win would give QU and Atlantic Hockey its first ever victory against a Hockey East opponent.

Finally, we look past the coaches and on to Wakefield, Mass., and the new home of Atlantic Hockey. Freshly-anointed commissioner Bob DeGregorio continues to try and take the league beyond its original cost-containment mentality with the desire to not only operate successfully as a business, but also increase attention and attendance around the league championship — something that could begin to give these nine clubs more credibility.

DeGregorio has to be thankful for a good beginning, but obviously has a lot more he’d like to see accomplished in the coming years.

To all of our readers, coaches, players and administrators: Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!