This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Dec. 4, 2003

The Upset … Finally

“Down goes Merrimack … Down goes Merrimack!”

Okay, so this wasn’t exactly Ali vs. Frazier and Howard Cosell, God rest his soul, was nowhere near Lawler Arena last Saturday night. But after nearly five years of waiting, Atlantic Hockey can claim victory over Hockey East.

A night after Quinnipiac looked lethargic, at best, in a 4-1 snoozer of a loss to Merrimack, the Bobcats became the first Atlantic Hockey team to beat a Hockey East opponent with a 3-2 road victory.

The win checked the third of the “Big Four” conferences off the win list for the league. The WCHA, which has played a limited number of non-conference games against Atlantic teams (mostly for geographic reasons) is the only league not to fall.

Quinnipiac’s victory ended years of frustration against Hockey East opponents, and was almost fitting for the Bobcats. Quinnipiac, way back in December of 1999, was the first team to put a fright into a Hockey East club.

On that night, the then-Braves held a 4-3 lead with less than ten minutes remaining against the Maine Black Bears (the defending national champions), only to see Maine score four times in the third to win 7-4 and burst the Quinnipiac bubble.

Since that time, plenty of teams have threatened. Holy Cross was a 2-1 road loser to Providence in January 2001 after holding a late 1-0 lead. They also had a lead on Merrimack only to see it slip away.

Connecticut has had some fierce battles with neighbor and rival Massachusetts, including a 2-2 tie in November 2000. At the same time, though, Connecticut was on the wrong end of one of the worst thrashings, 14-1 at Lowell in 1999.

But as Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold noted, all streaks have to end.

“As for breaking the Hockey East curse it was just a matter of time and something we didn’t worry about,” said Pecknold, whose team rose above .500 with the win (6-5-2). “We were just happy to beat a quality team like Merrimack from a great league like Hockey East.

The win broke a string of almosts in non-league play for the Bobcats. Quinnipiac had lost three times by one goal.

“We had three one-goal losses already this year to Michigan and Wisconsin and we were tired of being satisfied with close losses to teams from the Big Four,” said Pecknold. “I am very proud of how my guys played in our win over Merrimack. They played hard and competed for 60 minutes. And Jamie Holden and Matt Craig stepped up and had big games for us.”

Holden and Craig are two players Pecknold wants to count on in clutch situations. Holden and fellow goaltender Justin Eddy have proven that they can not only put their team in position to win games, but that they can also steal wins in games they shouldn’t.

Craig is beginning to prove himself as a big-game goalscorer, with two, including the game-winner against Merrimack on Saturday, and two other game-winners earlier this season.

Now, of course, it’s necessary to churn the rumor mill a bit. Knowing that they can compete with Hockey East despite a scholarship deficiency, somewhere in the minds of Pecknold and athletic director Jack McDonald has to be the thought of what it would be like to play in Hockey East.

There is no hiding the fact that the handcuffs on scholarships for Atlantic schools (limit of 11 compared to the NCAA limit of 18) is frustrating for a school like Quinnipiac. The ability to attract seven more top-quality players each year goes beyond simple improvement. Eighteen scholarships would make programs in getting the league to be competitive on the national level.

Still, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, no one is talking about that right now.

“[Moving to Hockey East] isn’t something I can focus on right now,” said Pecknold. “I have to worry about whether or not I can dress 18 healthy players every night. Hockey East is the furthest thing from my mind.”

Proper coachspeak, no doubt. But deep down the thought has to exist. McDonald, himself, comes from a big-time hockey background, having served as assistant Athletic Director at Boston College before taking over the top position at Denver and bringing that hockey program to national power.

For now, though, all we’ll have is speculation. And the ability to relish a long-awaited victory.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week Matt Craig, Quinnipiac (Jr., F, London, Ont.) — Craig ended a four-game scoreless streak against Merrimack Saturday. The junior forward netted two goals, including the game-winner at 12:04 of the third period and chipped in an assist on the other goal in defeating the Warriors 3-2. For the season, Craig leads the club in goals (seven) and points (12).

Goaltender of the Week Andy Franck, Mercyhurst (So., G, Lakewood, Oh.) — Franck stopped 44 of 47 shots (.936) as the Lakers skated to a 3-3 tie with No. 13 Cornell. The sophomore netminder made 13 saves in each period of regulation and five more in overtime.

Freshman of the Week Cole Koidahl, Connecticut (Fr., F, Minneapolis, Minn.) — Koidahl scored the winning goal against Bemidji State in the Huskies’ 4-3 win over the Beavers in the first of a two-game series on November 25. Koidahl also tallied assists on the Huskies’ second and third goals of the game. In UConn’s 7-2 loss to Bemidji Saturday, the freshman scored the Huskies’ second goal, his third of the season.

Almost Overlooked

Timing wasn’t exactly on the side of Mercyhurst. While Quinnipiac was off getting the league its first win over a Hockey East school, the Lakers were pulling off a mild upset of their own.

Mercyhurst walked into famed Lynah Rink and tied then-No. 13 Cornell, 2-2. The tie against one of last year’s Frozen Four participants is part of what has become a very impressive non-league streak for Mercyhurst. The Lakers knocked off nationally-ranked Ohio State in October and, one week before the game with Cornell, beat Western Michigan on the road.

All of which begs for a comparison between this year’s Lakers club and the 1999-2000 Niagara team. The Purple Eagles that season posted a 30-8-4 record, including a 15-0-2 mark versus CHA clubs. Niagara was given an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and swiftly unseated New Hampshire with a 3-0 victory.

Niagara that season posted a 14-8-4 non-league record, beating Boston University, Princeton, Rensselaer, Cornell, Merrimack, Brown and Colorado College. The Purple Eagles lost games to Alaska-Anchorage, St. Lawrence, Canisius, Colgate and Vermont.

To draw the right comparison is difficult. Because Niagara was and is a member of the CHA — a six-team league — there are more non-conference games to be scheduled, and then-head coach Blaise McDonald took full advantage.

Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin can try to do the same. But with eight other conference teams and 24 league games, that’s nowhere near the 26 non-league games Niagara could play.

Still, what Mercyhurst has accomplished can’t go unnoticed. It’s far too early to talk about the PairWise Rankings, but with continued non-league success, Mercyhurst could find itself high enough to be considered for an at-large NCAA bid if the Lakers don’t win the Atlantic tournament.

It’s something that I have harped on before, and with every Laker win or tie in a major non-league game, I’ll continue. Five out-of-league games are all that remain for the Lakers. A 4-1-0 or 3-1-1 record over that span would warrant a few eyeballs to open.

All of this remains speculation until these games are played. A tough league game at Quinnipiac on Friday night awaits the Lakers first, and a loss there could make much of the rhetoric moot.

Almost Overlooked, Part II

With all of the non-league success in Atlantic Hockey, it’s been easy to forget about some of the clubs. In defense of that, what this league and its teams are being judged on is not what happens when they face one another, but what happens when they face the national powers.

Yes, Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac have gotten most of the praise for this throughout the first half of the season, so forgive me if other clubs are feeling neglected.

Some key notes to pass along:

  • This year’s “Heroes’ Hat” — given to the winner of the Connecticut-Quinnipiac series in memory of the victims of September 11th, will once again come down to the final game of the three-game series. Quinnipiac won the first game, but tied Connecticut a week and a half ago. The Huskies can not win the Heroes Hat outright but with a win in the series’ final game on February 21, could share the award. Quinnipiac has won the first two Heroes’ Hats.
  • American International has worked itself off the schneid with back-to-back wins over Army and Bentley. The Army game snapped an 11-game winless streak dating back to last season. Things, though, will be tough for AIC this weekend, hosting Canisius and Mercyhurst. Though Canisius is a tough test, Mercyhurst is even worse. The Yellow Jackets have never beaten the Lakers since the two teams joined the then-MAAC Hockey League in 1999.
  • Pop quiz: Which team holds the current longest winning streak in the conference? Well, it’s AIC. The Yellow Jackets are the only team to win its last two league games. Holy Cross holds the season’s longest winning streak. The Crusaders’ six-game winning streak was snapped at Sacred Heart on November 28.
  • The Crusaders continue to roll in conference play. With a 9-1-1 conference mark, Holy Cross holds an 11-point lead over Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac. Crack research indicates that an 11-point lead is the largest any team has ever held in the MAAC/Atlantic Hockey. If anyone can prove me wrong, email me. For the record, Quinnipiac may trail by 11 points but has six games in hand on Holy Cross. Wins in all of those, of course, would be good for 12 points.