This Week in Atlantic Hockey: March 11, 2004

It’s Showtime

Forget the regular season. Throw out all of the statistics.

Beginning today, none of that matters.

The second season is here and with it is the inaugural Atlantic Hockey tournament. This year’s tourney will be played at an entirely (well, semi-)neutral site in Army’s Tate Rink. The league’s top facility is expected to have solid crowds this weekend, particularly with Army playing in the tournament’s first game, Friday’s play-in.

“We’re excited,” said Army head coach Rob Riley. “We want to put on a good show with entertaining games. We have our own team and games to worry about so it’s a little bit distracting, but we’ll make sure this thing is run well.”

Despite the fact that Army’s students are on spring break this week, Riley still hopes that crowds will be good, particularly with the fact Army is favored to survive into a second day.

“I would guess we’ll have big crowds,” said Riley. “Last weekend we had 5,000 for the two games combined and we’ve sold more than 600 all-game passes and whatnot, so I think there will be some good crowds.”

Hopefully those crowds will be treated to top-notch hockey. Here, then, is a breakdown of how things will shake out:

Play-in Game
Friday, March 12, 7:00 ET

No. 8 Army (8-17-3, 6-15-3 AH) vs. No. 9 American Int’l (4-24-4, 3-17-4 AH)

Season Results: Army leads series, 2-1-1
October 18, 2003: at Army 2, American Int’l 1 (nonconference)
November 23, 2003: at American Int’l 4, Army 1
January 9, 2004: at Army 5, American Int’l 2
January 10, 2004: Army 2, at American Int’l 2 (OT)

The inaugural Atlantic Hockey tournament will open with a game unique to both its participants. With the playoff format change that now includes all teams, the tournament now features a “play-in” game between the lowest seeds — Army and AIC.

Tournament organizers might have been secretly excited when Army fell from the seventh seed to number eight last weekend, meaning that the gate for the play-in game would be significantly higher that if Army, the tournament’s host, wasn’t playing. Add to that the fact that Army is favored and suddenly this eighth-seeded team might pull in two large crowds for the league, if not more should upset city rear its head.

That, though, is not the thought process for Army head coach Rob Riley, who obviously would have preferred to give his club one fewer game in this tough playoff stretch. Still, Riley recognizes the excitement factor surrounding this weekend.

“It’s kind of a new experience for everybody,” said Riley. “We’re used to being the lower seed and heading on the road to play a quarterfinal game.”

Riley, never one to overlook AIC, did still mention that should his club advance, it would set up an interesting matchup with No. 1 Holy Cross.

“The team that wins on Friday has a little experience and has things turned around so there’s a little less pressure [against Holy Cross]. “The top teams have played well all game but now it’s a 60-minute game where if they fall behind they might be asking, ‘What’s going on?'”

AIC head coach Gary Wright agrees, but realizes that getting past this first game is a difficult enough task.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us, but that’s what we deserve [after finishing ninth],” said Wright. “One of the great lines from Rob Riley on media day was when he mentioned that not only was his club in the playoffs, but they also have home ice.”

Regardless of seeding, any team that faces Army this weekend will be playing what amounts to a road game against a team that had five of its eight wins at home this season.

“I think that perhaps makes it more intriguing,” said Wright. “It will be a real playoff atmosphere in that first game on Friday.”

When talking pressure, one would think that there’s little on AIC, the underdog no matter who it faces, but particularly against host Army Friday night. Wright, though, says that’s not completely true.

“In one respect going into these playoffs, there’s not as much pressure,” said Wright. “But on the other hand, we’ve had a rough season so there is a little bit of an edge and it would help us if we had some success in the playoffs.”

The key in this opening game is goaltending. Army’s Brad Roberts was all-league last season in the MAAC but struggled this year due to what Riley classified as a breakdown in team defense. It got to the point that Riley gave senior Billy Moss three of the final four starts of the season and saw, initially, some positive signs.

But a rocky performance last week for Moss against Connecticut combined with Roberts’ experience will make the sophomore Riley’s choice for the playoffs.

“Billy Moss put together a couple of good games, but … Brad has been the experienced guy so I think that we’re going to have to turn that way for the weekend,” said Riley.

His club will face a goaltender who doesn’t posses the best record in the country but is near tops in the nation in save percentage. Frank Novello has had only three wins his junior season, but his .923 SV% ranks him 11th in the nation.

“Novello has played great against us,” said Riley. “He’s a very good goalie and one of the top two or three in the league this year.”

“It’s definitely on our minds that [Novello] has had a tremendous year,” said Wright, who wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Novello would steal a playoff game, but admitted that it was a possibility. “He missed a number of games this year with injuries, but when he’s played he’s been a big time goalie for us.

“There’s no one in hockey when you talk about playoffs that goaltending doesn’t come up and I feel comfortable about our goaltending situation.”

Prediction: Too hard to pick against the home team in this one. Army, 3-2

Quarterfinal No. 1
Saturday, March 13, 10:00 AM ET

No. 4 Sacred Heart (12-16-5, 12-8-4 AH) vs. No. 5 Connecticut (12-15-7, 9-10-5)

Season Results: Sacred Heart leads series, 2-0-1
January 30, 2004: at Sacred Heart 4, Connecticut 2
January 31, 2004: Sacred Heart 6, at Connecticut 5
February 24, 2004: Connecticut 4, at Sacred Heart 4 (OT)

The opening quarterfinal this year might be one of the earliest-in-the-day college hockey games ever played.

With the four-games-in-a-single-day format, the league set the first quarterfinal between Sacred Heart and UConn to begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Most teams in Atlantic Hockey are accustomed to the usual 7 p.m. start, and maybe an occasional 3 p.m. game on a Saturday.

But 10 a.m.?

UConn coach Bruce Marshall had plenty of humor when asked how to prepare for such a start time.

“I might have to ask my eight-year-old,” said Marshall likening his schedule to a youth hockey game. “We might have to put cartoons on and have their parents tie [the players’] skates.”

All joking aside, Marshall didn’t think that the game time would have much effect on college students used to being up at 8 a.m. for class. Still, on the other side, Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah isn’t taking any chances with that.

“The routine is different. We’d usually be getting up for a morning skate at the time we’re playing the game,” said Hannah. “So all week, we’re on [spring] break, so we’ve been getting the guys up every day at 6:15 a.m., and I think that’s been good. The guys have been fresh and getting to bed at night so I think it will be a good thing for us.”

On the ice, this is a matchup that should intrigue. Each team has had a hot second half. Each club is young and needed time for players to mature. Each team should have momentum coming off a solid home stretch in the second half of the season.

In other words, this is a battle of confidence versus confidence.

“We’ve played well against [UConn] and I think we match up pretty well with them,” said Hannah, whose club was a first-round favorite a year ago but was upset by Bentley. “In the latter stages of the season, we were missing a little and not firing on all cylinders. But we’ve talked to the guys this week about bringing our game together on Saturday at 10 a.m.”

Hannah thinks a critical part to his club’s success was its ability to mature quickly.

“With the schedule we played this year and the way we played in the second half our team has really come together,” Hannah said. “They’ve matured a lot from the early season. They’ve suffered through a lot of battles but conquered in some of those battles.”

Much of the same can be said for UConn, which will play 13 freshmen on the average night. Needing to do a lot of growing up throughout the year, the Huskies got that, particularly from goaltender Scott Tomes.

“I think Scott has matured so that he doesn’t worry about what happens as much,” said Marshall. “Early in the season sometimes he’d collapse in a tough situation but now he’s at the point he can put things behind him.”

The same can be said for this freshman class.

“It will be a first playoff game for a lot of guys on this team,” Marshall said. “But that’s boded well for us in that these guys haven’t know what to expect so they’ve just kind of taken things as they come.”

The fact that UConn couldn’t beat Sacred Heart this season obviously is in the mind of Marshall. But having worked all week on changing the way his team played against the Pioneers, he hopes will improve UConn’s chances.

“We see the type of goals that they’d scored against us [during the year] and that concerns us,” said Marshall. “Hopefully, having watched film we won’t give them those types of opportunities. Hopefully when it matters most we have figured it out.”

Prediction: UConn is the darkhorse in this tournament. The Huskies will figure out Sacred Heart, and be extremely dangerous moving on. UConn, 4-3.

Quarterfinal No. 2
Saturday, March 13, 1:15 PM ET

No. 3 Quinnipiac (15-13-6, 12-6-6 AH) vs. No. 6 Canisius (9-15-8, 9-11-4 AH)

Season Results: Canisius leads series, 2-1-0
January 9, 2004: at Canisius 3, Quinnipiac 0
January 10, 2004: at Canisius 4, Quinnipiac 2
February 6, 2004: at Quinnipiac 3, Canisius 2

Call it an aberration. Call it bad luck. Call it whatever you want.

For the first time since the formation of the MAAC, Quinnipiac did not finish in the top two. That doesn’t make head coach Rand Pecknold very happy.

“We weren’t happy with a third-place finish, but we’re ready to make amends for that,” said Pecknold — and that despite the fact that the Bobcats did put on a late-season rally, beating first place Holy Cross and Sacred Heart on the road to close the season last weekend.

“We did have a nice last week with two wins on the road against tough teams in tough places to play. I was happy it was third and not fourth, but we set a standard that we sort of dipped below.”

Pecknold’s Bobcats could look to making amends in Saturday’s second semifinal. The only problem is that first they’ll face a Canisius team, the tournament’s six seed, that has done well against Quinnipiac, winning the season series.

“When we faced them, [goaltender Bryan] Worosz played well in all three games,” said Pecknold. “He was excellent in the two games up there and was good even in our own rink when we won. [Canisius] did a good job of not giving us a lot of scoring opportunities.”

One important factor for Quinnipiac will be which team arrives on Saturday afternoon. In two road losses to Canisius, Pecknold felt the Griffs outplayed a Quinnipiac squad that simply didn’t show up.

“The two games up there they outplayed us,” said Pecknold. “We were flat on back-to-back nights, and even the game we won I thought we were flat and they were hungry. They’re a very good defensive team with guys up front that can finish.”

This is a rematch of last year’s MAAC quarterfinal when, as the number-two seed, Quinnipiac rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Canisius, 3-2. Pecknold knows that falling behind this year wouldn’t be advisable, and he hopes to lean on net play to avoid that.

“It’s one and done so you have to have some good play from your goaltender,” said Pecknold, who possesses two of the top goaltenders in the country in Jamie Holden and Justin Eddy. “You have to have your kid playing well if you’re going to go to the NCAA tournament.”

Asked if his decision was made about which goaltender he will start, Pecknold answered, “Yes.” Would he share that decision? “No.”

And thus the gamesmanship begins.

One thing is for certain in terms of goaltending: there’s about a 100% chance we’ll see Worosz in net for the Griffs. Worosz has recorded decisions in all but six games this year with the junior holding a respectable .895 save percentage.

Add to that the recent play of young guns like rookies Billy Irish-Baker (10 points in his last seven games) and Michael Cohen, the team’s leading scorer, and you have a club that could pose a lot of difficulty for the Bobcats as a first-round opponent.

Predictions: Though the Bobcats have struggled at times, this won’t be one of them. Quinnipiac, 4-1

Quarterfinal No. 3
Saturday, March 13, 5:30 p.m. ET

No. 1 Holy Cross (19-9-4, 17-4-3 AH) vs. Play-in Game winner (No. 8 Army/No. 9 AIC)

Season Results

vs. Army, 3-0-0 vs. AIC, 3-0-0
Dec. 5: at Holy Cross 3, Army 1 Nov. 7: at Holy Cross 5, AIC 2
Dec. 6: at Holy Cross 3, Army 0 Nov. 8: at Holy Cross 3, AIC 2
Feb. 22: Holy Cross 5, at Army 2 Feb. 24: Holy Cross 1, at AIC 0

If ever there was a team that limped into the playoffs as the number-one seed, Holy Cross (as well as Boston College in Hockey East) is it.

The Crusaders, after losing just two league games all season got swept in its final weekend of the season and have not won a game since clinching the regular-season title against Mercyhurst on February 27 (0-2-1).

That, though, hasn’t been too much of a concern to head coach Paul Pearl.

“We played okay [last weekend],” said Pearl. “We ran into good goaltenders and good teams. We got 70-something shots but only scored one goal.”

Indeed Holy Cross threw everything but the kitchen sink at Quinnipiac’s Jamie Holden and Bentley’s Simon St. Pierre last weekend, 76 shots total, but came away without a point. But now, as Pearl points out, this is a new season. It’s one that threatens the league’s top teams since any club can come in, play well for 60 minutes and move on.

Add to the mix that the Crusaders, the only team that doesn’t yet know its first-round opponent, could face host Army, and the equation gets even more interesting.

“We knew we were going to have to play a good team in the first round,” Pearl said. “I’ve said it all year that the league is very balanced, one through nine. So if that team happens to be Army, so be it. I can’t get caught up in all of that stuff.”

Pearl admitted, though, that his game plan with differ depending on the outcome of the play-in game.

“We’ll look at both teams differently,” said Pearl. “We’ll have a couple of different points of emphasis, depending on who we play.”

One point is the power play. Though it didn’t score in either of last weekend’s games, he likes the way the puck is moving. And everyone knows that come playoff time, the ability to grab that goal with the man up can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Pearl is also satisfied that he has one of the more experienced clubs in the tournament. Though they’ve never battled past the semifinals (Holy Cross lost last year, 3-0, to Quinnipiac) there is enough senior leadership to be a factor.

“We’ve got some guys who have been through the wars here,” said Pearl, “so we have a lot of positives going into this.”

Now Pearl has to hope that his club can also have a positive coming out, as well.

Prediction: The No. 1 will advance no matter who it plays. The only difference is the score: vs. AIC, 5-2; vs. Army, 3-2 (OT).

Quarterfinal No. 4
Saturday March 13, 8:45 PM ET

No. 2 Mercyhurst (19-13-2, 16-7-1 AH) vs. No. 7 Bentley (9-18-4, 7-13-4 AH)

Season Results: Mercyhurst leads series, 3-0-0
January 9, 2004: at Mercyhurst 2, Bentley 1
January 10, 2004: at Mercyhurst 3, Bentley 2
February 28, 2004: Mercyhurst 7, at Bentley 1

For the first time in four years, Rick Gotkin’s Mercyhurst Lakers do not enter the tournament as the number-one seed. The Lakers, who put together three straight regular-season titles and won the postseason tournament two out of those three years, never could catch first-place Holy Cross, which started out the year hot and never quite relented.

Still, Gotkin’s club almost has an advantage. By finishing second, the Lakers take on Bentley in the first round, a team that Mercyhurst demolished, 7-1, last weekend. At the same time, Mercyhurst avoids the potential first-round match up with Army, the tournament’s host.

But Gotkin knows that in no way is his club immune to upset.

“That would not surprise me,” said Gotkin when asked if a lower seed could make the finals or even win the tournament. “You have to like your favorites, but in that one-game scenario, the bounce of a puck can keep your season going or end your season. The parity has gotten better and better every year and anything can happen.”

To advance, Gotkin will look to rely on two aspects that have carried Laker clubs of the past: goaltending and special teams.

The first is an up-in-the-air proposition for Mercyhurst. Gotkin said he still has not decided on whether Andy Franck or rookie Jordan Wakefield will play. Both goaltenders have given Gotkin what he needs this year — the chance to win — and both have save percentages over .900.

“This time of year, the team that’s getting great goaltending and is really good on the special teams is usually the team that’s continuing to play,” said Gotkin. “We like where we’re at this time. With the peaks and valleys we’ve had this year, the program has still taken a lot of steps out of conference. We’re hoping those experiences with help us as we get ready to drop to puck on Saturday night.”

Probably the strangest feeling will be the game time. The 2 vs. 7 game will be the last of four Saturday, not set for the drop until 8:45 p.m. (barring overtimes in previous games). The league has guaranteed that whichever team advances will play the late game on Sunday, but still there could be disadvantages.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a great difference [on Saturday] because both teams are in the same boat,” said Gotkin. “The only place it comes into play is for the team that advances and has to play the next day. You could have a situation where the winner of the late game could play the winner of the 10 a.m. game.”

The opponent for Mercyhurst is an always dangerous Bentley club. Though their record this season was less than impressive, the Falcons are still the team that a year ago surprised everyone and qualified for the league final four. Returning a lot of that experience will be a positive that could help in pulling off an upset.

“We definitely had a great year last year,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “We prided ourselves with having to work hard to win last year. But I think we forgot how hard you have to play in the first half of the season. We had a decent second half with a tough schedule.”

Bentley, though, has the unenviable task of facing the defending champ and the best offensive team in the tournament.

“We know [Mercyhurst] is a top team to play,” said Soderquist. “But everybody’s goal should be to win the tourney, not just get through the first round. So if we’re going to have to beat a team like Mercyhurst, I’d rather have to do it the first night when we’re fresh than any other time.”

Soderquist made it clear that if his club is to beat the Lakers, it’ll need to ride the coattails of goaltender Simon St. Pierre.

“St. Pierre is playing his best hockey right now,” said Soderquist. “Some of our success last year was based upon him playing well.

“This past weekend was the first time that he really seemed to be perfect and play his best game. If he’s on his game early and he’ll thrive off that, he could walk out of the building having given up one goal.

“This is a nice time to prove that we are a good team. We have nothing to lose coming in as the seventh-place team.”

Prediction: It won’t be a cakewalk, but Mercyhurst should survive. Mercyhurst, 4-2.

Semifinals: Sunday, March 14, 4:30 and 7:45 PM ET. Teams will be reseeded

Predictions: Based on my picks above, I see one upset and one status quo game. UConn will take out Holy Cross and Mercyhurst knocks out Quinnipiac, leaving a Lakers vs. Huskies final.