This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 12, 2004

Over? Or just beginning?

Four weeks remain in the inaugural season of Atlantic Hockey. And here, as we stand, it seems almost a shoe-in that the regular-season title will go to Holy Cross.

The Crusaders, though they’ve had some stumbles (including a recent tie versus Canisius and loss to Quinnipiac), are the league’s most consistent team. Opening up a major lead going into Christmas — thanks in part to the fact that they played the majority of their league schedule before the break and now must wait out games in hand — HC is poised to become the first team other than Quinnipiac or Mercyhurst to capture a MAAC/AH title.

As the new year approached, both Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst seemed as if they would use their games in hand to close the gap on Holy Cross. Last weekend, though, Mercyhurst was swept by Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac took only a solo point from American International, giving the Crusaders a bit of breathing room.

But as has been previously discussed, the new playoff format places the entire league tournament at Army and involves all nine teams, putting little emphasis on the regular-season title.

“I’m not really that concerned with what place we’re going to finish in [the standings],” said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. “It’s not anyone’s ultimate goal to finish in first place. It’s a nice feather in the cap. But for the coaches in our league, I think you’d just rather not play Army in the first round.”

Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, though, disagrees.

“Whatever anyone thinks, other people can downplay it,” said Pearl. “But I think [winning the league is] a great accomplishment.

“If we were fortunate enough to win the league, that’s a huge honor for us. That’s a 24-game test, not some single-elimination tournament. Though the bid [to the NCAA tournament] is not on the line, in terms of our teams and what we want to accomplish, it would be great.”

Pecknold did point out that the one advantage of being a number one seed is the ability to play the winner of the play-in game, this year featuring the eight versus nine seeds which play one night earlier, meaning that your team will be better-rested.

Beyond that edge, little remains. But there’s no doubt that each of those clubs would like to call itself Atlantic Hockey champion. Holy Cross sits in the driver’s seat with 30 points. Mercyhurst is second with 23, while Quinnipiac lags behind in third at 20. The Lakers hold one game in hand over HC, while the Bobcats have two.

Which leads Pecknold to a quasi-psychological concession.

“I like their team,” said Pecknold of the potent Holy Cross club. “But there’s a lot of parity in our league, so someone could turn around and sweep them [some weekend].

“But I really like HC’s team. They didn’t lose a ton [from last season] and they have a great freshman class. [Their] goalie is playing well and he has seven or eight defensemen that could play.”

Coach-speak? Yes. A little jealousy? Maybe. A battle to the end for this year’s title? Your guess is as good as mine.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Tim Olsen, Connecticut (Jr., F, Vadnais Heights, Minn.)

Olsen completed a hat trick, including the game-winner, in the Huskies’ 5-3 win at Bentley on Feb. 7. He also tallied an assist in the contest, and finished the weekend with five total points after having also scored in a Feb. 6 win at Bentley. Olsen now leads the team in both points and assists, with 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points. He ranks in a tie for seventh in the Atlantic Hockey in points, is tied for sixth in goals and tied for 10th in assists.

Goaltender of the Week

Kevin LaPointe, Sacred Heart (Jr., Quebec, PQ)

LaPointe put in a 25-save effort on Friday night and followed that with a 42-save performance on Saturday, including 18 saves in the second period alone, as he posted shocking back-to-back wins over Mercyhurst. He stopped 67 shots and allowed just four goals against the Lakers as he improved to 8-5-1 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.64 goals against average in conference play this season.

Freshman of the Week

Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart (Fr., Nicolet, PQ)

O’Brien scored the game-winning goal on Friday night and followed that with a two-goal, one-assist performance on Saturday, giving him four points in the Pioneers’ weekend sweep of Mercyhurst. O’Brien is now tied for the team lead in scoring with 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points. His 10 goals are also tied for the team lead. He ranks second among Atlantic Hockey rookies and 14th overall with seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in league play. He ranks 17th among all D-I rookies with 0.72 points per game.

A feat that can’t go unnoticed

In a week of upsets, Sacred Heart’s sweep of Mercyhurst was most impressive. Combined with the Pioneers sweep of Connecticut one weekend earlier, SHU has now posted a conference-best four-game winning streak.

That, though, should come as no surprise to weekly readers.

As anyone who read last week understands, Sacred Heart (and yes, I realize I picked against them twice last week) is a team with depth and talent, just needing a bump of confidence to get over a hump. Needless to say, back-to-back weekend sweeps at this point in the season might do just that.

Looking at the Pioneers’ schedule, though tough games exist — like a home matchup against Quinnipiac and road games at Mercyhurst and Canisius — the fact that the Pioneers still face AIC three times could bode well. But for the Pioneers to clinch a top-four spot in the playoffs, which would be the goal, those games against AIC plus one against Connecticut and one at Army become (as cliched as it is to say) must-wins.

Climbing from the bottom

They hadn’t won a game against a league opponent in nearly two and a half months. On top of that, it took until late November for this club to register its first win.

So when American International took three of four points from Quinnipiac last weekend, a few raised eyebrows had to result.

Saturday the Yellow Jackets pulled off a 4-2 upset win against the Bobcats at home. That might have been surprising, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, right?

But when the same club tied Quinnipiac, a team that has never finished lower than second place in league history, one had to wonder, “What is going on?”

“We are just struggling to finish our scoring chances,” admitted Pecknold. “We had a plethora of chances and it’s a combination of their goalie playing well and us not finishing them.”

Pecknold said that AIC was “opportunistic” and that the club had “vastly improved from the beginning of the season.

“You make a mistake and they’re off to the races. We had time of possession in our favor, but that’s not the end all-be all.”

“National” recognition for legendary rivalry

The annual exhibition game between Army and Canada’s Royal Military College has long been one of the classic grudge matches in college hockey. Though it doesn’t include big-name programs like Boston College-Boston University or Michigan-Michigan State, this cross-border battle is the longest continuous rivalry in the game.

So it was appropriate that when the two clubs got together last weekend to play the 73rd installment of the hockey classic, this year’s edition received some pro-style recognition.

With the National Hockey League on its all-star break, and this year’s game taking place on the Royal Military campus in Kingston, Ont., connections were used to pull three NHL officials in to call the game.

Veteran referee Greg Kimmerly wore the stripe for the evening while fourth-year NHL official Derek Nason and second-year man Steve Barton worked the lines.

The NHL trio whistled a total of 14 penalties — which, for a rivalry game sometimes known as much for its brawls as its classic hockey — is a low total.

Maybe it just took the top cops in the game to keep these soldiers in line.

Army says “YES” to television

It’s not every day that an Atlantic league game is televised. So when it happens, particularly on a national cable network, it’s more than worth mentioning.

For the second time this season, an Army home game hits the national cable airways, this time on the YES Network (owned by the managing group of the New York Yankees), when the Black Knights host league-leading Holy Cross on Sunday afternoon, February 22.

Army’s dramatic 4-3 victory over Air Force earlier this season was televised nationally on College Sports Television.

To many in the know, it’s no surprise that a station would pick Army for television. Tate Rink is the largest arena in the league, one of the few equipped with a working press box, and is well set up for broadcasts.

Quote of the Week

With the initial release of general manager Jayson Moy’s anticipated “Bracketology” article Wednesday, it seemed appropriate to ask Pearl, whose team — based on the fact that it currently is in first place — was included as Atlantic Hockey’s representative in the fictitious bracket, for his thoughts.

The coach hadn’t seen the story and didn’t know which team was predicted as a first-round opponent. But on finding out that No. 1 Boston College was tabbed to meet the Crusaders, Pearl had a quip ready:

“I think that’s great. We’d be renewing an old rivalry. We only lost 3-1 to them back in ’87.”

Pearl went on to say that his club isn’t looking much at bracketology, still a country mile away from an NCAA bid. For now, Holy Cross is more focused on the power play belonging to this weekend’s opponent, Air Force.