This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 4, 2004

Non-league Bliss?

If this were four or five years ago, we’d be celebrating like we were Red Sox fans.

Not one, but two Atlantic Hockey teams, pulled off upset victories last weekend over “Big Four” conference foes. Nationally-ranked Dartmouth fell, 2-1, to Quinnipiac, and Colgate lost at home against Army for the first time in that series history, 3-2, to give Black Knight coach Brian Riley his first career win.

These are milestone wins and there’s reason for the league to be excited. But the question that has to be asked deep down is, when will victories like these turn from festive occasions to commonplace?

“I think if you ask specific coaches, those are good wins, but they’re not doing jumping jacks about them,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl.

But if you look at Atlantic Hockey’s counterpart league, the CHA, it seems that the day when Big Four success becomes commonplace has already come. As a matter of fact, CHA wins over Big Four teams have been pretty regular acts since the league’s inception.

The reason most will point to, of course, is scholarships. The CHA, like all of the Big Four leagues, offers 18 scholarships, the NCAA max. Atlantic Hockey adopted the same scholarship structure its members used when they were in the MAAC, allowing each school to issue only 11.

But the reality behind all of this is that CHA programs face a lot of the same obstacles as Atlantic Hockey programs. It’s not easy to recruit blue-chip players to any of the schools in either league. Sure, there are a handful of players who do slip through the cracks and end up in the lower two leagues and turn out to be better players than half of those in the Big Four, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

So why then is there a noticeable discrepancy between the records of Atlantic Hockey and the CHA? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question.

One thought is that much of the separation comes through individual members. Take, for instance, Niagara. Since the first day that program started under then-head coach Blaise MacDonald, the Purple Eagles have been competitive on the national scale. Every dollar of funding, everything that program needs to be competitive, it seems to receive.

For many Atlantic Hockey programs, fiscally speaking that will never be a reality. In the CHA, though, there are some teams with healthy budgets that at least assist in competitiveness.

But to pull a John Kerry-like flip-flop (I’m a Democrat who voted for Kerry, so no hate mail for that comment) is it realistic to think that non-league success might not be all that far away?

Take a look at some of the scores in recent weeks. Massachusetts 2, Canisius 1. New Hampshire 5, Mercyhurst 4. Union 3, Mercyhurst 2. Rensselaer 3, Connecticut 3 in overtime. Most of these games were on the road as are almost all of the non-league Big Four matchups for Atlantic Hockey teams (pretty much the only exception to this is when you play on neutral ice at a tournament). Many would tell you that on home ice many of these one-goal games could easily go the other way.

Add to this of course the two wins last weekend, along with Connecticut’s road upset of UMass the weekend before.

“I don’t know if we’re turning the corner, but I can say that talent-wise we’re a lot better than we were four years ago,” said Pearl. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to have teams in the top three [of the national poll], but we’re certainly a better league.”

Right now, the biggest disadvantage that Atlantic Hockey teams face may not be scholarships. Facilities and being able to attract teams for home games (or the converse) could be the biggest disadvantage these schools face.

“Obviously you want to play at home and not on the road in your league or out of your league,” said Pearl. “I can’t equate [home ice] to a certain number of goals, but it’s an advantage that every team wants to have.”

The solution to this problem is not in sight. There’s no advantage for a school like Boston College or North Dakota to play against Connecticut on the road. If any Big Four team beats an Atlantic Hockey team it’s considered business as usual. Lose that game and it’s a failure. So in no way can you look at this scenario and imagine why any Big Four team would want to play Atlantic teams on the road.

Realistically speaking, the issue of home ice and possibly for now the issue of scholarships isn’t anything that Atlantic Hockey can tackle. So to answer the original question, celebrate away. Take a bow, as every win is a big one!

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Pierre Napert-Frenette, Holy Cross

As the Crusaders needed to rally to a 2-2 tie against Air Force on Friday before beating the Falcons a night later, Napert-Frenette was the catalyst of the offense. His goal began the rally on Friday night before his hat trick on Saturday combined with an assist gave him a five-point weekend.

Rookie of the Week

Jeff Fearing, Army

Fearing registered three assists in two games on a weekend that saw Army pull off one of its best upsets in years, beating Colgate on the road for the first time in 13 tries. It also gave head coach Brian Riley his first career coaching victory.

Goaltender of the Week

Jamie Holden, Quinnipiac

The Quinnipiac Bobcats got outplayed, outhustled, out-everythinged against No. 12 Dartmouth. The only place the Big Green couldn’t outdo the Bobcats was on the scoreboard, thanks to the effort of senior goaltender Jamie Holden. Holden stopped 45 of 46 shots on his way to victory, only the second against an ECAC team in QU history.

‘Cross Begins Title Defense

Last season was an historic run for the Holy Cross Crusaders. At no time in the season did they trail in the Atlantic Hockey standings. In a landslide, they won the inaugural Atlantic Hockey championship and even gave a good game to top-seeded North Dakota in the NCAA tournament.

Eight months later, it’s finally time to defend the title. That defense gets underway this weekend as Holy Cross will face Bentley and American International, two games that anyone in the know figures HC should win in a landslide. But it’s the ability to convert those predictions into Ws that will take Holy Cross from contender to back-to-back champion.

To this point, things have gone as planned for Holy Cross. Four non-league games have resulted in two wins and a tie, and, in Pearl’s estimation, some pretty solid play.

“We’re playing with a lot of energy,” said Pearl. “We’re just still a little bit disjointed as far as how we do things. We need to get a little more poise to our games and once we get that we’ll be fine.”

Against Alabama-Huntsville and Air Force, the Crusaders had solid offensive production from key players. Last weekend, Pierre Napert-Frenette, possibly Holy Cross’ top forward, put up a five-point weekend. Prior to that, Jimmy Sixsmith chipped in offensively against Alabama-Huntsville.

“There’s a group of five or six who have to be going on all cylinders,” said Pearl. “Sixsmith has been playing great since the beginning. Pierre had a great weekend last weekend. He was just shooting the puck and getting it on net and that did the job.”

In net, things are business as usual as both Ben Conway and Tony Quesada are showing signs of being a top-notch one-two combo.

“They both bring completely different styles,” said Pearl about his netminding tandem. “The guys like playing in front of both of them, so [platooning] is just part of the team thing. We’re getting everybody involved to figure out exactly what we have.”

Holy Cross will face American International on Friday night and Bentley on Saturday. Though not making anyone’s list of preseason favorites, this duo of clubs are critical opponents for the league’s top teams. It’s often success in games against the league’s predicted bottom that separates you from the rest of the crop.

“Both of those teams we always have great games with,” said Pearl. “They’re different teams stylistically, so we’re trying to prepare for both. AIC tries to spring guys behind you, particularly in their building. Bentley will come in and try to out-physical us. This will be a tough weekend of hockey.”

Banged-up Army Making Do

It was a critical first win for rookie Army head coach Brian Riley. Beating Colgate on the road was possibly one of the last places that Riley thought he’d get win number one, particularly with his current squad.

Two key players — top goaltender Brad Roberts and talented forward Chris Garceau — and four players total for Army are currently out of the lineup with injuries. Translation is not only the need for a handful of players to step up into new roles, but also for sophomore goaltender Treye Kettwick.

Kettwick, who until this season had a total of 65 minutes collegiate experience and had never played a complete game, was forced to relieve Roberts against Bentley two weeks ago, earning a tie. After getting roughed up against Cornell and Rensselaer, his performance against Colgate in earning the win was exactly what Riley had hoped for.

“Stepping in against Bentley was tough,” said Riley. “But to go up against RPI, Cornell and Colgate certainly gave him a lot of experience. To have to jump in against all those teams is certainly good preparation for him.

“He put us in a position to win the game. Anytime you play against a team of Colgate’s caliber, your game plan is to be in the game in the third period. Being down only 2-1 as a result of Treye making some big saves, he put us in position to win the game.”

The win made for an exciting, though admittedly quiet (Riley said the club was just emotionally and physically drained), bus trip for the Black Knights back to West Point. But Riley cautions that one win, at this point, doesn’t mean a lot.

“It’s a great win from a standpoint that it validates all the hard work the guys put in at the early part of this season and in the pre-season,” said Riley. “But one win doesn’t make a program or a year. Our goal is to get better each night out. Hopefully playing [non-league games] will help make us a better team especially in the second half of the season.”