This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Dec. 2, 2004

Third Place Provides Plenty of Consolation

It’s not that often that a team finishing in third place in any tournament can take much solace. That is, unless you’ve struggled to score goals and win game for a few weeks.

So when Holy Cross pulled off what had to be considered an upset against tournament favorite Union at last weekend’s Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Pot in Providence, head coach Paul Pearl had reason to smile.

“It was a big win for those kids in the room,” said an elated Pearl after the game. “We battled pretty good [Sunday]. We did a good job.”

The upset win featured two cogs: the goaltending of Ben Conway, and the first goal of the season — which was the game-winner — from captain Andrew McKay.

“He’s a good goalie,” said Pearl about Conway. “We expect him and Tony [Quesada] to play well for us all the time. They’re two players on the team and two of the better ones.

“[Ben] did a very good job of controlling his rebounds. That’s been a little bit of a bug-a-boo for him down at Huntsville [earlier in the season] and last week at Army.

As for McKay, Pearl said “he hasn’t scored a ton this year, but he will. He’s a goal-scorer.”

McKay’s goal came on the power play late in the game with things tied at one. It was the first power-play goal for the Crusaders in more than two weeks and couldn’t have come at a better time.

“On the power play, we got a couple of in-tight chances,” said Pearl. “[On the game winner] we had the right guy with the puck.”

Holy Cross added an empty-netter on the power play as well.

Unfortunately for the Crusaders, the win didn’t come without some price. The team’s top scorer, Jim Sixsmith, was injured in a knee-on-knee collision, while forward Blair Bartlett also went down in the game. The prognosis of both is not known.

The result of the injuries, though, was having to drop to a system that Pearl says may have provided a little more rest for his tired players late in the game.

“When we lost Sixsmith and we lost Bartlett halfway through, we switched it up and started going with three lines and seven defenseman figuring that Union cycles the puck pretty good so that can tire your defensemen,” said Pearl. And though the Dutchmen did take it to Holy Cross in the final period, at one point holding a 10-2 advantage in shots, the Crusaders had enough gas left in the tank to survive.

What makes the game unique, for lack of a better term, is the position Holy Cross sits when playing in such a game.

Union, which was favored entering the tournament, coming in on a six-game winning streak, knew it needed to win to get something for its efforts on the weekend (Union tied, 4-4, with Merrimack in the semifinals but lost in a shootout). But still the Dutchmen were overcome by the consolation-game blues.

For Holy Cross, playing a Big Four school is enough to motivate any of those players, and the win was celebrated more than this writer has ever seen a consolation victory celebrated.

“These guys are just excited to get in there and play any game,” said Pearl.”The only thing that was a concern was a little bit of fatigue.

“On the second day [of a tournament], it’s actually nice to play at 4:00 [in the early game]. You don’t have to wait around all day and sit around the hotel.”

And one final factor that can’t be lost. Though no one on Holy Cross would comment, it’s impossible to believe the fact that Union and then-athletic director Val Bellemonte’s push to keep Holy Cross out of the ECAC when the league accepted expansion candidates this past summer wasn’t on the Holy Cross minds.

Whether it was revenge or just a desire to win, though, the victory was definitely sweet.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Tim Olsen, Connecticut: Three points, including two goals against Bentley last Tuesday (Nov. 22) was enough to earn Olsen player of the week honors.

Dan LeFort: The Quinnipiac rookie got the Bobcats heading back in the right direction on the road. LeFort scored a goal and added two assists in a 5-1 victory at Army.

Ben Conway: Conway not only pulled in an upset victory over Union on Sunday, but if it wasn’t for a strange sand-wedge like goal late in the game, he would’ve earned a shutout to boot.

League Rumblings

It’s been a quiet couple of months for Atlantic Hockey in discussion of its two hot topics: expansion and scholarships.

Don’t expect that to last for long, though, according to commissioner Bob DeGregorio, as things will heat up as early as this weekend.

DeGregorio confirmed that league officials will be making a site visit to Rochester Institute of Technology this weekend in hopes of learning more about the school that is considered by most a front-runner for Atlantic Hockey’s 2006-07 expansion. The league will also visit Air Force at some point in January.

These two developments seem to confirm that both of these schools are the top candidates for the ninth and tenth slots (the league will be eight teams at that point due to the loss of Quinnipiac to the ECACHL).

At the same time, DeGregorio hints that a possible increase in the number of scholarships might be on the horizon as well.

The proposal that the commissioner referenced would call for a year-by-year increment in the maximum number of scholarships issued. Though he didn’t specify the exact increments at which scholarships would increase from the current level of 11, he discussed a hypothetical situation where one scholarship would be added per year.

DeGregorio’s said the reasoning behind the proposal would be the ability to evaluate the impact — both positive and negative — of the increased spending. Obviously the ability for schools to bring in more scholarship athletes carries with it the likelihood that the league would become more competitive in nonconference play, a stigma that has haunted the league since the days of the MAAC.

But DeGregorio seems convinced that currently there’s no need to make a dramatic jump (say, from 11 to the NCAA limit of 18) particularly with many programs facing limited budgets.

A third and final action of note is that two schools — Sacred Heart and Bentley — are exploring the possibility of building on-campus facilities for hockey. Both play in local youth hockey rinks. There are only four schools of the current nine members that have on-campus facilities.

Quote of Note

Pearl, known for comical postgame remarks, gave a chuckle last week after his team’s victory over Union.

When asked about Union’s goal that tied the game, one that looked like a Phil Mickelson sand-wedge shot because of the fact it flipped high in the air and landed directly in back of his goaltender, Pearl said: “BC scored the same goal on us last week. People see it on film that we’re susceptible to the flip goal.”

Pearl also got folks chuckling when he saw the masses of media looking to speak to him after the team’s 3-1 loss to Providence.

“Where are all you folks when we win?” laughed Pearl. It should be noted that the week previous Pearl was shocked by a large media gathering after his team’s 5-0 loss at Boston College.

Welcome to the big time, Coach.

On the Road Again

In past weeks, you’ve seen me write about Mercyhurst’s ridiculously long road trip (10 games, finally concluding this weekend). Well now that the Lakers can go back to their own beds at night, a second team is ready to hit the road.

Quinnipiac begins a seven-game league road trip this weekend at Holy Cross (the only benefit is that next weekend, at least, the Q will play two at home versus non-league opponent Robert Morris). Head coach Rand Pecknold didn’t even realize that his club had seven straight Atlantic games on the road, and given his club’s success, it’s probably better off he didn’t.

Quinnipiac is 1-5-1 this season on the road, a tough comparison to years past (1998-99 QU was 11-4-2 on the road).

“One thing we need to get better at is becoming a better road team,” said Pecknold. “With seven straight on the road, we need to improve our status in league play.

“It’s interesting, because a few years back we were good at home and pretty good on the road. Now we’re good at home and struggle on the road so that’s certainly a concern.”

If there’s to be success, Pecknold will look to the continuously improve play of his freshman class. Last weekend, it was rookie Dan LeFort who stepped up with three points against Army. Pecknold hopes that can start a trend.

“The freshmen are starting to chip in which is what we need,” said Pecknold. “Our freshmen are going to be a very important part of our success this season.

“We need some of them to step up and produce on the power play. As the year goes on they’ll get better and better. Some have made the adjustment really quickly and some have struggled. But I think we’ll be a better team come February.

Also beneficial is the depth of his team. Leading a club that consistently has been hampered by injuries in the past three or four seasons, Pecknold recruited a larger freshman class to give him the spare players he needs should injuries hit.

“We’ve had some injuries, just not as many as we had in the past,” said Pecknold. “The difference with this year’s team is that we’re deeper. In the past we’d get the injuries and not be deep enough to handle that. Now, when we lose a kid or two, it doesn’t affect us as it did in the past.”

A Peek at the Standings

Thanksgiving is past so I’m pretty sure now it’s reasonable at least start looking at what’s going on in the Atlantic Hockey standings. Every team has played a conference game by now, with Mercyhurst the lowest with only three. Army and Bentley have seen the most league play with eight and seven games, respectively.

The more important stat — games won — is led by the league’s top two point clubs: Canisius and Sacred Heart. Fast league starts have benefited these two clubs, and many teams, including Holy Cross last year, taught us that it’s nice to play with a lead in the league standings rather than be chasing all year long.

Mercyhurst is the league’s only perfect team at 3-0-0, and Quinnipiac combined with the Lakers, Griffs and Pioneers are the league’s four plus-.500 teams.

Connecticut picked up its first league win last week when it beat Bentley. For another year it looks like a slow start for the Huskies who typically rally into the playoffs. Five teams currently have only one win which shows that the parity of old may be lending itself to a more defined upper and lower half of league play.

That said, one of the teams in the upper half, Quinnipiac, is about to embark on seven consecutive road games in league play that lasts until January 22.

Of the bottom five teams that should make the biggest run, of course, is Holy Cross. The Crusaders have struggled to score goals lately and that’s been their biggest problem in league games. Having finally broken through last weekend against Union should be a spring board for the ‘Cross, which sees four league games, three of them at home, between now and the Christmas break.

If any team has seemingly turned things around with little to show, it’s American International. The Yellow Jackets are 1-5-1 overall, but have lost leads twice and dropped a third one-goal game. AIC hasn’t played since November 16 and will finally get back to action Friday night at Bentley.