This Week in Atlantic Hockey: March 18, 2004

And Then There Were Two…

Twenty-three hours of hockey later, the inaugural Atlantic Hockey playoffs are down to only two teams. Few were surprised that top-seeded Holy Cross made it out of the fray. In fact, the Crusaders had the easiest time, by far, disposing of ninth seed American International, 5-0, and sixth seed Canisius, 4-1.

The Holy Cross defense limited (possibly the understatement of the year) its two opponents to very few quality scoring chances, and both the offense and the power play both clicked and operated extremely efficiently and productively, shouting full force that this is one team with which to be reckoned.

Their opponent in the championship game (Saturday, March 20, 7:00 p.m. at Army’s Tate Rink) comes from the other side of the fence, as they say. Fourth-seeded Sacred Heart had to win back-to-back battles, shutting out on of the league’s hottest teams, Connecticut, in the quarterfinals, before beating second seed and defending champ Mercyhurst in the semis, in the most exciting game of the seven-game weekend.

Plenty is clicking for the Pioneers, including an offense that might have been overlooked at times and a defense that, similar to Holy Cross, is doing a nice job of limited chances. The backbone of that defense, goaltender Kevin LaPointe, has performed higher than expectations and, if Sacred Heart is to earn the autobid to the national tournament, LaPointe will likely be the reason.

The matchup of these two clubs is an interesting one. In three games this season, Holy Cross holds a 2-1-0 advantage. More importantly, their styles have differed remarkably from game to game. No more was that evident than a weekend home and home that saw Holy Cross win night one, 6-5 in overtime, in a wide-open, offensive game, before Sacred Heart responded a night later with a tight-checking 2-1 win.

“They’re a versatile team that we’re going to have to play our best if we want to beat them,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl of Sacred Heart. “Their strength is their persistence.”

“If you watch them play, they have such talented kids and [with the persistence] you get the success that they’re getting. They’re not going to cheat [the systems]. They work too hard and that makes them a good team.”

Versatile and persistent. Not everyday words in hockey — well, the latter maybe more than the former — but last weekend, they make sense. The Pioneers played two very different games. Their opener against UConn was a defensive battle. Strangely played at 10 in the morning on Saturday, neither team featured much run-and-gun and SHU came away victor by neutralizing UConn’s high-firing offense while being opportunistic on its own chances.

Sunday’s semifinal win over Mercyhurst was exactly the opposite, with Sacred Heart having to fight through multiple momentum changes to contain the fast-skating Lakers. In the end, it became a game of survival, which the Pioneers did well, allowing a total of only 24 shots throughout the game.

“Holy Cross has some real skilled forwards that like to play on the rush,” said Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah. “And we have some forwards that can play that way as well.

“But knowing the way Holy Cross has played defensively [of late], and the fact we have a good team defense system here, I expect a close-checking game.”

If that’s the case, picking the winner becomes a lot more difficult. As much as Holy Cross can limit an opponent’s chances on any (or is it every?) night, Sacred Heart can counteract that with LaPointe, who is the leading candidate for playoff MVP if the Pioneers win.

There’s nothing that would point to the fact that Sacred Heart stole a win from Mercyhurst in the semis, but if you want to make that case, a couple of LaPointe’s saves, including a first-period robbery on Adam Tackaberry and a late-game glove save on T.J. Kemp, support it.

For either team winning this game would be monumental. Neither school has ever advanced to the NCAA tournament, though Holy Cross did win the inaugural MAAC championship before an autobid was awarded. Still, both coaches are hesitant even to think what the next step would be like.

“I haven’t even thought about it,” said Hannah, when asked whether he’s talked to his team about the NCAA experience. “There are steps to take and we have to go one step at a time. Maybe those conversations come into play after the weekend if things work out for us.”

“I’m purposely not going there,” said Pearl. “That perspective [on the impact of an NCAA bid] is something you have in the middle of July, not right now. We focused only on this game and winning this game. There’s no reason to think beyond this.

“What we’ve done so far is mission accomplished. [The championship game] is just another mission.

“We’ve been good at breaking things into little sections — little six-game exams. We weren’t talking about a regular-season title after 12 games. Then last week, we acted as if last weekend were a two-game tournament. Thus, this weekend is a different tournament. So it’s a one-game pass or fail. It doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do with what happened before.”

Hannah did note that everything that has happened to this point, has, and will have a major impact on his players and the program moving forward. And the success, he believes is something that comes from the past.

“Here at Sacred Heart, we’ve been working at this for a lot of years,” said Hannah. “We’ve come up short on several occasions. Last year, with the team we had, we didn’t accomplish (they were upset as the number three seed by Bentley in the first round) what we wanted to and that’s rolled over to this year’s team. The upperclassmen have communicated that well to the younger players.

“From the team perspective, there’s a lot on the line. For the institution, there’s a lot of buzz on campus. For the young institution we are and the short Division I history at Sacred Heart, it’s a great opportunity for the institution.”

Prediction: I’ve done such a crummy job predicting the first seven games of this tournament, it almost doesn’t even make sense for me to pick here. Still, I’ll give my opinion so more people can tell me I’m wrong. My thought is that the Holy Cross defense will beat the Sacred Heart defense — simply put. With that, look for a low-scoring game, and possibly overtime. Holy Cross, 3-2

We Won, Now What?

It’s hard to say but fun to speculate where the winner of the Atlantic Hockey tournament will end up in the NCAAs. At this point, there are a few things known.

First off, it’s almost a lock that whichever team wins, they’ll be the lowest of the 16 seeds in the tournament. There was a thought that Holy Cross would rank higher than Bemidji State in the PairWise comparison, but that was spoiled when Niagara upset Bemidji in the CHA tournament. With Niagara the winner, the Purple Eagles actually rank higher than both Sacred Heart and Holy Cross in the PairWise (Niagara was not a “team under consideration” tournament until they won the CHA, because their RPI was under .500, the cutoff for qualifying).

Thus there are only three other teams still playing that potentially could rank lower than Holy Cross (no team ranks lower than Sacred Heart). Those are Clarkson (currently tied with Holy Cross in the PairWise), Northern Michigan and Alaska-Anchorage (unable to tell where they rank as similar to Niagara, their RPI is below .500 and they’re currently not a team under consideration).

The conclusion at the end of this is that whether or not Sacred Heart or Holy Cross end up victors, they are odds-on favorites to be the lowest seed in the tournament and most likely have to face the top team.

That, then, is where you have your second hangup. Currently, three teams are tied at the top of the PairWise: North Dakota, Maine and Boston College. The tiebreaking method at this point is RPI, of which UND has the highest. Thus, the first-round opponent for the Atlantic could be North Dakota.

What’s more is the location. To satisfy the NCAA rules for placing teams, we’d first have to look at the criteria that says a number-one team shall be placed as close to home as possible. For North Dakota, that’s the West Regional in Colorado Springs. Still, there’s one exception.

Should Colorado College qualify, as the host of the West Regional, they must stay at home. Thus the NCAA criteria that conference matchups in the first round should be avoided at all costs says that North Dakota might be forced to move from the West. In that case, they could be shipped East in place of the lowest eastern number-one seed (currently Boston College). That would place the first-round game between North Dakota and the Atlantic winner in Albany at the East regional.

One other scenario: Maine wins Hockey East but North Dakota loses out west at the WCHA tournament. That could catapult Maine over North Dakota for the overall number one, setting up a meeting between the Atlantic winner and the Black Bears in the first round of the Northeast regional in Manchester, N.H. (Ironically, both Sacred Heart and Holy Cross played Maine this year, losing by a combined score of 13-0 — HC lost 7-0 and SHU lost 6-0).

Like I said in the beginning, it’s impossible to predict any of this before Saturday night when all is said and done in the conference tournaments. Still, it’s fun to imagine.