This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 25, 2004

Time to Give Thanks

Every year at this time, I move away from the usual path of my column to take a tongue-in-cheek look around the league at what each of the teams and some of the other personalities in Atlantic Hockey are giving thanks for this Thanksgiving Day.

This year is no exception, so let’s start in Hamden, Conn., on the Quinnipiac campus. You can almost hear the prayers at the Thanksgiving tables of athletic director Jack McDonald and head coach Rand Pecknold.

“Thank you, ECAC. Thank you, ECAC.”

Indeed, the folks in Connecticut have had plenty to be thankful for since it was announced that Quinnipiac will take the place of Vermont when the Catamounts move to Hockey East next season.

When the move was announced, many thought it was a pretty fair swap, with Quinnipiac a perennial power in Atlantic Hockey and a Vermont program that hasn’t seen much success in the last five or six (maybe even more, in reality) seasons.

As we’ve hit November, though, folks in the ECACHL might be questioning that original reasoning. Vermont is nationally-ranked and Quinnipiac is struggling to survive in Atlantic Hockey. The Bobcats, since capturing the title in their made-to-win season opening Q-Cup tournament, have only two wins and have been on the wrong end of some ugly non-league scores. This past Tuesday, QU fell on the road to rival Sacred Heart.

The good news is that many of the team’s games have been away from the friendly confines of the Northford Ice Pavilion (which is slated to give way soon to a new on-campus rink), though QU still has to face a seven-game road swing to begin the second half of the season after Christmas.

Up the road to the north, Connecticut coach Bruce Marshall may wonder if there’s much for which to be thankful. If anything, though, he can find a silver lining in the play of rookie goaltender Brad Smith. Smith stepped right in after last year’s starter Scott Tomes was sidelined with an injury. And though his record doesn’t reflect his play, Smith has given the Huskies a chance to win on many nights.

The highlight of Smith and UConn’s season had to be a 3-2 overtime victory over state-school rival UMass on October 24. That afternoon, Smith made 38 saves and gave UConn its first-ever win over a Hockey East opponent.

Closing out Connecticut, we can talk about the already-mentioned and high-flying Sacred Heart Pioneers. Coach Shaun Hannah has to be thankful for his team’s quick start in league play, entering the Thanksgiving weekend with a 5-1-0 record, tied for first place with Canisius.

Though non-league play hasn’t been exactly spectacular (an understatement considering that in five losses, Sacred Heart has been outscored, 30-4), the Pioneers will have a chance to make up for that this weekend when they face Air Force and either Robert Morris or host Rensselaer in the annual RPI tournament.

By the way, if you’re looking for an individual who has helped Sacred Heart to its quick league start, look no further than last year’s Rookie of the Year, Pierre-Luc-O’Brien.

Moving north again, this time to Massachusetts, we visit the Thanksgiving table of Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. Pearl might simply be thankful if he could a) score some more goals and b) get his team to play with more discipline.

Starting with the first, the defending champs have scored a grand total of four goals in their last four games. The high offensive point on the season was a 5-2 win over Air Force. The Crusaders have been held to two goals or fewer five times.

As for discipline, Holy Cross is not exactly the Broad Street Bullies. In fact, the Crusaders are the second-least penalized team in the league with more minutes than only the annual Lady Byng Award-winning team, American International.

But in last Monday night’s 5-0 loss at Boston College, it took Pearl 15 minutes after the game to let his team know how unhappy he was with their discipline. The team took 10 minor penalties, four or five of which could be considered undisciplined, and the end result was two power-play goals for one of the nation’s best offenses.

The silver lining for the ‘Cross: despite all of the offensive problems of the club, both Jim Sixsmith and Pierre Napert-Frenette are lighting the lamp, Sixsmith with 10 points and Napert-Frenette with nine.

AIC head coach Gary Wright might not be so thankful for the fact that his club has only one win, but one thing he’s more than pleased with is the play of senior goaltender Frank Novello.

Novello, who has always been a solid ‘tender for the Yellow Jackets, has found a way to improve his numbers. At this point, Novello ranks third in the league with a 2.70 goals against average and is second in a league filled with good goaltending with a save percentage at .933.

Yes, both Novello and Wright would like to see more offensive support which eventually will translate to wins. But one thing is still clear: AIC is an improved team.

The final Bay State team, Bentley, might be shaking its head trying to figure out exactly what it takes to win. Thankfully at this point, the Falcons have a win and a couple of ties in league play, but for head coach Ryan Soderquist, he’s likely giving thanks that his club has a week off from league play.

Since upsetting Holy Cross on November 6, Bentley is winless in Atlantic Hockey (0-2-1). The club’s one tie, though it came against Quinnipiac, saw Bentley let leads of 2-0 and 4-3 late in the game slip away.

Soderquist should be thankful that he found rookie Anthony Pellerin, who is leading the club in scoring with 10 points. If only he could get one of last year’s best forwards, Paul Markarian, to net a couple of points, this offense could actually be successful.

Leaving New England and heading west, Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh has plenty of positive vibes to enjoy at dinner. For one, the team’s travel schedule, which included an early-season trip to Alaska, is almost over. After a mid-December trip to North Dakota, the Griffs will be on the bus for the remainder of the year, which is likely welcome after most of the team’s luggage was lost heading to the Great White North.

On the ice, Cavanaugh has to like what he’s seen so far. His club is tied atop the AH standings with a 5-1-0 record and were it not for an overtime loss to the Pioneers on November 12, Canisius would be riding a six-game unbeaten streak.

The catalyst for the Griffs’ solid play has to be the goaltending of senior Bryan Worosz. Two weeks ago he became Canisius’ all-time saves leader, and a 4-0 shutout and 5-1 win over Connecticut last weekend earned Worosz Player of the Week honors. Statistically, Worosz is best in the conference with a 1.92 goals against average and is solid with a .936 save percentage.

Army coach Brian Riley makes his debut in this annual Thanksgiving column. The first-year head coach has had a tough go of it early, battling injuries to starting goaltender Brad Roberts and top forward Chris Garceau, but of late he has to be pleased with taking three of four points last weekend against Holy Cross.

Stepping up in the Black Knights’ net has been sophomore Treye Kettwick. His 2-5-2 record may not seem impressive, but his wins came against Colgate and Holy Cross, which immediately make people stand up and take notice.

Taking notice was the U.S. military itself. Last weekend U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army’s highest-ranking officer, presented Kettwick with the Superintendent’s Coin, awarded in recognition of outstanding performance. Congratulations, indeed, to Kettwick.

Last, but certainly not least among coaches, is hockey good guy Rick Gotkin and his Mercyhurst Lakers. The two-time postseason champs have been humbled a little early this season in non-league play, having played a tough slate on the road against non-Atlantic teams, but still, the Lakers are showing their mettle to compete for another title.

Gotkin has to be thankful for the fact that soon — very soon — one of the worst road schedules ever will come to a close. Mercyhurst opened this season playing 12 of its first 13 games on the road. Though 3-0 in league play, the Lakers haven’t won a non-league game on the road and this weekend will be tested against with a two-game slate at Colgate.

December 10, though, is the target date for the Lakers. On that night they will return home for the first time since October 26.

On the ice, though, Gotkin, like so many other coaches in this league, has to like what he’s seeing from his goaltender, Andy Franck.

An admitted weakness a season ago, the Lakers goaltending, particularly Franck, has solidified this year. Franck has a .917 save percentage and a 2.77 goals against average despite a 5-0 shelling at RPI a few weeks back. In league play, Franck has already posted two shutouts and has allowed just three goals in three games.

The final Thanksgiving visit takes us back to Massachusetts and the office of Commissioner Bob DeGregorio. He’s had a difficult year, particularly with the pressure of replacing Quinnipiac. What’s being done right at this point, and for this everyone in the league should be thankful, is that DeGregorio refuses to rush to fill the hole.

The league has taken a methodical approach to addressing expansion and, though it won’t take effect until the 2006-07 season, my Thanksgiving turkey says that we should expect to see Air Force and Division III RIT riding the waves of the Atlantic.

And so, having talked about everyone else’s Thanksgiving dinner table, it’s time for me to take a seat at my own and gorge out on the biggest meal I eat all year. To all, Happy Thanksgiving!