This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 26, 2004

Bring on the Hardware

As the rollercoaster that is the college hockey season speeds briskly down the final hill toward the finish line, so comes to a close the first season of Atlantic Hockey. The once-MAAC hockey league did more than just survive its rookie campaign as an independent hockey conference, though the biggest tests still lie ahead in the conference tournament and offseason talks.

Still, with the end of year one on its way, it’s time to talk awards. The league itself hasn’t made public its award guidelines as of yet, so I’ve taken it upon myself to give my own hardware (well, not really hardware, because there’s no actual trophy involved).

So, without the red carpet and Joan Rivers, here’s my take on this season’s superlatives:

We’ll start with the all-conference team. All season this column has included quotes from coaches about the talent level in the league improving. That’s apparent as you try to thumb through which players are most deserving of recognition.

No more is that obvious than in goaltending. If this league has anything it can be proud of, it’s the men who put on the pads night in and night out. There are no fewer than six goaltenders who can steal a game, many of whom have done so repeatedly. Goaltending should be the pride of the league.

Defense is a position with plenty of talent, some proven throughout the year in nonleague contests. Gone are the days where playing an Atlantic Hockey opponent meant a minimum of 50 shots on goal for Hockey East and ECAC teams. Instead, close, hard-checking games are the order.

And, of course, offensively this league changes little. As the MAAC, the league produced solid goal-scorers, highlighted this year when ex-Holy Cross forward Pat Rissmiller grabbed a cup of coffee in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks.

Here, though, is a look at which players stood out enough this season to be worthy of being called “All-League.”

First Team All-League

David Wrigley, F, Mercyhurst : The Lakers may give up the regular-season title for the first time in four years, but they’re still a potent postseason club that will challenge for the title. One reason is that Wrigley, though he hasn’t posted the points one might expect, is one of the most talented forwards in the league.

Jeff Dams, F, Holy Cross: When Dams entered Holy Cross nearly four years ago, being a part of the hockey team might have been a tough thing. The club missed the MAAC playoffs his freshman season and many thought that it would be impossible for a non-scholarship school to play in the top half of this league. Three seasons later, Dams and his Crusaders are near their first regular-season championship.

Tim Olsen, F, Connecticut: Olsen proves that you don’t have to be on a top team to be a great player. Right now, it looks like Olsen could be the league’s leading scorer come season’s end, and with his club playing well of late, the Huskies could be the darkhorse in the postseason.

T.J. Kemp, D, Mercyhurst : When picking top defensive players, which would you rather have? A scorer or a defensive-minded defenseman? Mercyhurst’s Kemp gives you a little of each. His defense-first style has earned him respect of the coaches in the league, and at the same time he’s put up decent offensive numbers, leading all defensemen in Atlantic league games.

Reid Cashman, D, Quinnipiac: Though a shoe-in for the all-rookie team as well, freshman defenseman Cashman has proven himself to the league as a solid, two-way player. Twelve points in 20 league games ranks Cashman third among defensemen entering this weekend’s play.

Jamie Holden, G, Quinnipiac: As I’ve already mentioned, goaltending is a difficult position to choose for this award. Names like Tony Quesada or Andy Franck could be listed here, but Holden has posted remarkable numbers during what his team probably considers a down year. Holden leads the league in goals against and save percentage in league play, while boasting a respectable 7-4-3 record in Atlantic games.

Honorable Mentions: Tony Quesada, G, Holy Cross; Eric Nelson, D, Connecticut; Greg Kealey, F, Holy Cross; Pierre Napert-Frenette, F, Holy Cross; Mike Carter, F, Mercyhurst; Garrett Larson, Sacred Heart

Many coaches will tell you that the league had its best recruiting effort ever this year. The talent level increase that accompanied these recruits is a lot of the reason that many feel that, top-to-bottom, this is the best the league has ever been.

In a way, that makes picking an all-rookie team a little more difficult. Some positions are easy (goaltending only has one true candidate who saw significant time), others, like forward, are difficult.

All-Rookie Team

Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart: As difficult as it is to pick some of the players for this rookie team, it’s that easy to pick O’Brien. This highly-recruited scoring machine ranks at the top of the rookie scoring charts, averaging just under a point a game for the third-place Pioneers. He’s a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.

James Sixsmith, Holy Cross: Sixsmith was one of the key additions to the Holy Cross roster who has helped them towards the league title. The depth he adds and the scoring volume he has brought (17 points in 18 league games) make Sixsmith another possibility for ROY.

Mike Cohen, Canisius: It’s no surprise, with the youth that Brian Cavanaugh’s Canisius team has, that we’d find a Griff on the all-rookie team. Cohen easily could have been joined here by teammates Billy Irish-Baker and Joey Coccimiglio, were it not for the depth of rookie forwards throughout the league

Reid Cashman, Quinnipiac: What more can be said about this skilled player? He was good enough to make my first team all-league and is some coaches’ estimations is the best d-man across the league. He filled a hole on defense left by a preseason injury to Wade Winkler, a seemingly-critical loss.

John Landry, Holy Cross: There are high hopes for this young blueliner, who plays a solid two-way game. His 11 points in league play are fourth among all defensemen in Atlantic Hockey.

Scott Tomes, G, UConn: Though Tomes was the default candidate for the award, with no other rookie logging serious ice time all season, it isn’t without merit. On a team that struggled to find decent goaltending, Tomes helped the Huskies survive and now his club sits in fifth place as the season draws to a close.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Shearer, F, Connecticut; Billy Irish-Baker, F, Canisius; Joey Coccimiglio, F, Canisius; Jeremy Leroux, F, American International; Scott Champagne, F, Mercyhurst; Kyle Larman, D, Bentley; Jamie Hunt, D, Bentley

Player of the Year: Tim Olsen, Connecticut

Some say that a Player of the Year winner should come from a top team. That shouldn’t be the case this year as Olsen, on pace to win the league scoring title, has helped his club to the position it stands in right now. Olsen’s offensive output account for nearly 14 percent of UConn’s scoring this season; in league play, that rises to better than 16 percent. Best of all for the Huskies, Olsen, a junior, will return next year.

Rookie of the Year: Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart

In a league with so much rookie talent, O’Brien stands out as the most promising forward. As talented as the third-place Pioneers are, O’Brien is second in scoring on the team. Clutch play has been O’Brien’s specialty, posting four game-winning goals. If the Pioneers continue their late-season run and have playoff success, it will be because O’Brien is in the scoring mix.

Coach of the Year: Paul Pearl, Holy Cross

Pearl talks a lot about his senior class, which won just eight games as freshmen and finished in 10th place in an 11-team league. Four years later these same players are a point away from clinching the school’s first-ever regular-season championship. Part of the credit is to the players for the turnaround, but it’s impossible not to pat Pearl on the back for steering this ship. The Crusaders should join Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst as only the third different league champion, and the first team since the 1999-2000 Quinnipiac club (that went 23-1-3 in league play) to hold on to first place wire-to-wire.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

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

Olsen continued his hot streak over the weekend, scoring two goals and recording one assist in two games. He scored the tying and game-winning goals for UConn in their 3-2 win over Army at home to extend the Huskies’ winning streak to five games. In UConn’s 2-2 tie at Quinnipiac the following night, Olsen recorded an assist, marking the seventh straight game in which he has scored a point for UConn.

Goaltender of the Week

Kevin LaPointe, Sacred Heart (Jr., G, Quebec, QC)

LaPointe made 19 saves in a 3-2 overtime win against second-place Atlantic Hockey rival Mercyhurst and followed that with a 30-save performance the following night at Canisius in a 3-2 overtime loss. LaPointe is now 10-6-2 against Atlantic Hockey opponents this season with a 2.48 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

Freshman of the Week

Billy Irish-Baker, Canisius (Fr., F, Clarence, NY)

Irish-Baker was the offensive catalyst for the Griffs this weekend, scoring three goals and adding an assist for four points as the Blue and Gold swept visiting Bentley and Sacred Heart last weekend. Irish-Baker scored two goals, including the game-winner at the 1:24 mark of overtime, as the Griffs defeated Sacred Heart 3-2 Saturday night. His first goal knotted the game at 1-1 midway through the second period. In Canisius’ 4-1 win over Bentley Friday night, Irish-Baker scored the Griffs’ third goal of the game at the 16:23 mark of the second period and added an assist on the fourth goal of the game just over two minutes later.

Racing to the Finish

As everyone (including me) has been busy watching the race for the top spot in the Atlantic standings, other critical races have been shaping up.

With home ice gone, the difference between fourth and fifth place is simply a jersey color and last line change in the conference quarterfinals. The fact that Quinnipiac holds a four-point lead for fourth place over Connecticut is near irrelevance.

The race that bears watching, though, is for the seven, eight and nine spots in the standings. Seventh place holds the advantage of avoiding the play-in game, with the winner of that having to come back the next night to play the top seed in the quarterfinals.

Bentley holds the coveted seventh spot, with Army one point behind in eighth, and American International ready to be relegated to ninth, five points behind Bentley. Though with the upper hand, Bentley has the toughest of the remaining schedules, facing Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac and Army in its final four games.

Two heads as good as one for HC net

As much as you have to recognize Holy Cross goaltender Tony Quesada when you talk all-league, it’s hard to overlook his cohort, Ben Conway, who boasts equally impressive numbers.

Conway, though, was injured during the Christmas break playing in the Montreal tournament and didn’t see as much action as Quesada, making him somewhat forgotten to the average Atlantic fan. He was, though, not forgotten to head coach Paul Pearl, who, with Conway back to 100 percent health, is rotating the two goaltenders.

“That was my plan from the drop of the puck this season,” said Pearl. “We thought that we had a couple of good goalies here and we could play both.”

Pearl particularly likes the rivalry.

“I think there’s a healthy rivalry between the two and naturally they’re both really good players,” said Pearl. “Everyone wants some depth at the [goaltender], and truly any position, and that we certainly have in net.”