This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 19, 2004

The Heat is On…

Would you rather be the chaser or the chasee?

A simple question, but when it comes to the Atlantic Hockey standings, there’s no doubt that the team on top has to feel at least a little bit comfortable.

For that team, Holy Cross, the position is a little foreign. Two years removed from a struggling, below-.500 team, the Crusaders have a chance to become a wire-to-wire winner.

The club doing the chasing is more familiar with being pursued. Mercyhurst has won three straight regular-season titles, back when the league went under the name of “MAAC,” but being one position lower this late in the season doesn’t mean that the Lakers don’t plan on making a run.

“From our standpoint, at one point it was a 16-point deficit,” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin of Holy Cross’ fast start, and a schedule that saw them play more league games in the first half than any other team. “Now to be only three points behind, Holy Cross is in sight.

“The expectation for us has always been to challenge for the league championship. To win for the last few years has been a great thing. But this year, we’re going to have to play flawlessly down the stretch and get some help from someone to beat Holy Cross.”

Help is exactly what Gotkin’s club needs. His Lakers have five games remaining on the league schedule, beginning this Friday night with a contest against the league’s hottest club, Sacred Heart. Holy Cross still has six games, giving it a game in hand on the Lakers. That translates to the fact that Holy Cross can lose two games and still clinch the regular-season title outright.

Holy Cross head coach Paul Pearl said that was exactly what he expected.

“We knew that after Valentine’s Day you’d see things more accurately. [The fact that Mercyhurst is only three points behind is] good, though. There are pressure games down the stretch here. Everyone will be ready to go every game.”

The one thing it’s obvious that Pearl’s club lacks is experience. The Crusaders’ only success in pressure situations over the last three seasons came in last year’s playoff, which saw them advance to the league semifinals for the first time since 1999, only to lose to Quinnipiac.

That, Pearl says, shouldn’t matter too much.

“I think if this was pro sports, experience would be more of a factor,” said Pearl. “In college, you get a new team every year, so every individual team is pretty much going through it for the first time.

“I know the type of kids I have playing for me and they’ll have fun with it right away.”

Unlike what Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, whose team was challenging for the top spot before getting swept by Bentley last week, said about winning the regular season being less significant, Gotkin feels it’s a goal of his club and a milestone accomplishment.

“If you’re the regular-season champ in any sport at any level, it says a lot about the season that you have,” said Gotkin. “A bigger honor, maybe, is to get to the NCAA tournament and that’s done by winning the three playoff games, but anybody can do that.”

That said, Gotkin still doesn’t have a problem sounding off about this year’s playoff format, which takes away home ice in the first round, putting the entire tournament at an allegedly neutral site, Army.

“We would love a chance to play even one more home game, and usually that was a playoff game,” Gotkin said. “But does this diminish anything we do here? No way. We still want to be the regular-season champs. I don’t know if we will or not, because Holy Cross has played well all year.”

Though Gotkin and Pearl have similar views on winning the regular season, the two have different perspectives on what it will take to get to the top when the season closes.

“Play good defense and score on the power play. That’s it. It never changes,” quipped Pearl, whose Crusaders have posted the top defensive statistics in the league, allowing a stingy 2.33 goals per game.

“Execution is the pivotal phrase,” said Gotkin, talking about his club’s ability to control the puck, make plays and finish last weekend in a two-game road sweep of Army. “When we’re moving the puck well and executing, we’re playing well.”

As obvious as this may have looked a week ago when the Holy Cross lead stood at seven, a three-point advantage could be seen as a little shaky. Still, that in no way bothers Pearl.

“It’s what you hope to be playing for at the end of the season,” said Pearl of his club’s quest for its first league title. “Every team has a stake at this point, so no one will be mailing it in, and getting to February and having these games mean something is fun.”

Fun, indeed, for the players and those following along at home.

Weekly Awards

Players of the Week

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

Olsen continued his tradition of being a leader for UConn in its two-game sweep of Canisius, with a goal and four assists on the weekend. Olsen posted two assists in game one, the first a power-play goal — UConn’s first goal of the night — and the second an empty-netter to ice the win for the Huskies. He again recorded two assists in the second game, both on the power play, and scored his own power-play goal to put UConn up 8-3. Olsen currently leads UConn in goals and assists with 11-17–28.

Andrew McKay, Holy Cross (Jr., F, Bellefeuille, QUE)

McKay led the Crusaders Friday night with two goals and four assists in an 8-4 win versus Air Force. Involved with six of the eight goals scored by the Crusaders, McKay assured that his team would not relinquish the lead to the Falcons. The Crusaders dropped their second game to Air Force 5-2 on Saturday.

Goaltender of the Week

Andy Franck, Mercyhurst (So., G, Lakewood, OH)

Franck picked up his 12th and 13th wins of the season by stopping 68 of 73 shots (.932) in a weekend sweep at Army. He is 11-4-1 in the conference with a save percentage of .907 and a goals against average of 3.05.

Freshman of the Week

Scott Champagne, Mercyhurst (Fr., F, Cornwall, ONT)

Champagne had three goals, the only multiple-goal scorer for Mercyhurst in a two-game sweep of Army, and an assist as the Lakers won 5-2 and 6-3. He scored Mercyhurst’s fourth goal Friday and had a hand in three of the six goals Saturday. He assisted on the third goal Saturday, scored the game-winner on a power play late in the second, and added an even-strength goal early in the third. He is second among freshmen on the team in scoring with 20 points. He has a three-game scoring streak, tops on the team.

Quote of the Week

Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin, of Sacred Heart’s red-hot goaltender Kevin LaPointe:

“He didn’t stand on his head, he stood on his lips,” said Gotkin of LaPointe’s performance in Sacred Heart’s two-game sweep of the Lakers two weekends ago. LaPointe finished the weekend with an impressive 67 saves, including 42 on night two.

So that Gotkin has something to look forward to, LaPointe and his Pioneers travel to Erie Friday night to once again take on the Lakers.

Notes from around the league

  • Deadlines and a short work week make this week’s column the ultra-Readers Digest version, and for that I apologize. Next week we’ll take a look at picks for the upcoming end-of-season awards. Get your ballots ready to compare.
  • Is it me or does it seem incredible that American International goaltender Frank Novello plays for the last-place team but posts some of the most impressive numbers in the league? The top stat for the junior goaltender is save percentage. With a .928 mark, Novello ranks second in league play behind only Quinnipiac’s Jamie Holden. Even with a 3-6-2 record in league, Novello is sixth in goals against average with 2.85.
  • I’ve taken a lot of criticism from fans and fellow journalists over the fact that I picked Bentley to finish third before the season began. The Falcons, despite returning much of their team from a year ago, struggled mightily from the onset and look destined to return to the cellar they occupied before last season’s breakthrough. But perhaps I’m not the complete idiot I appear. The Falcons have turned things around of late and last weekend flexed some muscle in a sweep of Quinnipiac. The Falcons will look to make it three straight this weekend when they travel to face a Canisius team that hasn’t won since January 17.
  • Speaking of Canisius, it became the second straight victim of Connecticut last weekend, which has won four games in a row. Bruce Marshall’s club has sneaked up into fifth place in a tough race through the middle of the pack. The Huskies will face Quinnipiac this Saturday night on the road in a game that will (or maybe will not) decide the Heroes’ Hat series.

    Now in its third season, the Heroes’ Hat is given to the winner of the UConn-Quinnipiac season series in dedication to the emergency service personnel who lost their lives at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Quinnipiac took the first game this season, 4-2, but tied UConn, 1-1 in late November. A Connecticut win would split the series. Quinnipiac won the first two Heroes’ Hats.