Welcome Home, Lakers
One of the toughest road trips in college hockey will come to an end Friday night when Mercyhurst hosts nearby rival Canisius. It will be the first home game for the Lakers since October 26, a span of 10 games and more than six weeks.
“We [assembled] this schedule through last year and when you piece it together, you look at it in June and think it’s not too bad,” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin. “Then you jump on the bus and go up and down the New York State Thruway nine times and you ask, ‘What were we thinking?'”
Mercyhurst finished the road trip 4-5-1, but the respectable number in that is the fact that the Lakers were 4-0-1 in Atlantic Hockey play, keeping them close to front-runner Sacred Heart.
“We’ve tried not to make the standings a focal point,” said Gotkin, who still noted that there’s still a big standings board outside the locker room for players. “We just try to take it one game at a time. We don’t worry about having games in hand or who has games in hand.”
With a front-loaded non-league schedule, Mercyhurst has played only five league games, the fewest in the league. Still, with three games in hand, the Lakers sit just four points behind Sacred Heart.
This weekend’s homecoming is timed nicely, obviously, but the opponent, Canisius, is playing some of its best hockey ever. The Griffs are 6-2-0 in league play and sit between Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst in second place, one point behind the Pioneers.
Gotkin knows that this series against Canisius, which he admits is probably the Lakers’ top rival because of the schools’ proximity, will be as tough a challenge as comes along.
“[Canisius is] big and strong and obviously they’re getting great goaltending from Bryan [Worosz],” said Gotkin. “They’re playing with lots of confidence and purpose.
“One of our players said the other day, ‘Whenever we play Canisius, it’s a real dirty weekend.’ He didn’t mean that it was a dirty game with cheap shots and stuff. What he meant is blue-collar dirty. That’s what it’s like. The team that can win the wall game and get to the net is usually the team that wins when these two teams play.”
When you look at the composition of the standings, and the fact that right now Mercyhurst and Canisius are among the league’s hottest teams, come March this may be the weekend that one looks back at as pivotal should either team win the league championship.
“It doesn’t really feel different to me,” said Gotkin when asked if there was a little extra importance to this series. “They’re natural rivals geographically. And as for championships, we’re not even talking about that right now. It’s way too early.”
Gotkin knows that if his club is going to have any success, it’s going to have to solve one player on the Griffs’ roster: Worosz. Currently Worosz has seven wins, a .937 save percentage which is fourth in the nation, and a 2.10 goals against average.
“We were talking the other day up here that we’ve known that [Worosz] is a good goaltender for a long time,” said Gotkin. “Obviously now his numbers are bearing out that he is an excellent goaltender.
“It’s all come together for him. He’s playing confident and his team is confident in front of him and we know that leads to success.”
Regardless, Gotkin is happy this week to be seeing white, not green.
“We wear green helmets on the road and white helmets at home,” said Gotkin. “And depending on where we’re going to be that week, we’ll wear that same color for practice. The guys came out in the white ones on Monday and I hardly recognized them.”
Player of the Week
Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart: O’Brien, mentioned below, is on a torrid scoring pace for the Pioneers and last weekend posted a five-point effort against Mercyhurst and Canisius to help Sacred Heart jump back into first place. Part of that five-point effort was a hat trick Saturday against Canisius where O’Brien scored the tying, game-winning and insurance goals all in the third period.
Rookie of the Week
Ben Cottreau, Mercyhurst: Another player with impressive numbers thus far, Cottreau added three assists in league play last weekend, helping Mercyhurst stay unbeaten in league play.
Goaltender of the Week
Scott Tomes, Connecticut: In his first game back after suffering and injury in the second game of the season, Tomes made 28 saves against Army to pick up his first win of the year. Though it didn’t factor into voting for this award, Tomes followed that up on Wednesday night with a 33-save performance to earn a 2-2 tie with defending champion Holy Cross.
Pioneers Cautiously Optimistic
Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah effortlessly put into perspective how he feels about his club’s 6-1-1 start in Atlantic Hockey play.
“We’ve got reason to be smiling right now,” said Hannah, who quickly came back saying, “There’s lots of hockey left to play.”
The Pioneers do, in fact, find themselves in a position which is unfamiliar — the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings. Sacred Heart has, by all estimations, played its most consistent hockey ever to start this season, something that Hannah and his team set as their goal from the get-go.
“We haven’t had a start like this in league play,” said Hannah. “But I think our group has worked hard to prepare themselves. We have a large number back this year. They knew we finished well but we didn’t play well all year. They knew that.
“We were committed to the goal of getting off to a good start, but they’re not satisfied.”
If anything has kept the Pioneers from getting a collective swelled head it has been the club’s nonconference performance. Despite the league record, Sacred Heart is 0-7-0 in non-league play, having been outscored, 37-8, in those seven contests.
“We’ve been executing well in our league games and learning a lot in our non-league games,” said Hannah. “When you think about what we’ve been through (Sacred Heart has played Vermont, Colgate, Cornell and Ohio State, all nationally-ranked teams) and how we’ve played in league games versus non-league, the guys have learned a lot.”
According to Hannah, it all has to do with systems.
“I think the biggest thing is that when you’re playing against teams like that you have to play your system,” said Hannah. “Whenever there is a breakdown it costs you. It’s either a great scoring chance against or a goal or an odd-man rush.”
When asked if there’s value in playing that tough of a non-league schedule, Hannah answered affirmatively.
“I think it’s worth it,” said Hannah. “To play against teams of that caliber, it helps us to prepare. It elevates the level of play that our team is playing at.
“If we get the chance to play in the national tournament, we’ll have had some chance to play against teams that play at that level.”
Back to league play, the Pioneers’ spot brings unique expectations. That’s something that Hannah hopes his team is prepared to face.
“In terms of pressure, they know they’ve got to perform. We can’t be complacent,” said Hannah. “We’ve got enough guys on our roster who have been in this situation [on past teams]. We just have to work with the guys on it and let them understand [the pressure].
“But I think they’ll stick to their goals that they set out to achieve at the start of the year.”
If you need to pinpoint Sacred Heart’s success, look to the play of sophomore Pierre-Luc O’Brien, last year’s league rookie of the year. O’Brien leads the team in points with 16 (in 15 games). Those are numbers that Hannah was cautiously optimistic to expect.
“[O’Brien] had an outstanding freshman year and you often see kids not get off to as good a start their sophomore year,” said Hannah, who describes O’Brien as a hockey nut who enjoys every facet of the game, from bus rides to workouts. “For him, he’s never satisfied so he’s gotten off to another great start. It’s all about his positive attitude.”
A bonus for O’Brien has been rookie linemate Alexandre Parent. Parent, who hails from Boisbriand, Que., has had a solid chemistry with O’Brien from day one.
“They just work so well together,” said Hannah about his dynamic scoring duo. “They see each other well and there’s a good chemistry between them.”
Currently holding the league lead, the Pioneers will not return to league play until the New Year. They face Massachusetts on the road this weekend, hoping to improve their non-league results, and then return from the holiday break with an exhibition versus St. Clair on December 29.
No Rest for Weary at League Office
With a full agenda of items to tackle, commissioner Bob DeGregorio is as busy as Santa Claus this holiday season.
Last weekend, as reported on USCHO.com, DeGregorio and Canisius athletic director Tim Dillon made an official site visit to RIT, which is a finalist for admission to the league beginning in the 2006-07 season.
According to DeGregorio, the athletic directors of the league’s schools are scheduled to meet on a conference call Friday morning. DeGregorio would not specify the agenda for the call.
Should RIT’s membership come up on the call, rumors would make it seem that approval at this point is academic.
DeGregorio, himself, admitted he was more than impressed with what he saw last weekend.
“They’re great people,” said DeGregorio about RIT. “They have great facilities and they’re enthusiastic. I think they’re a great fit.
“The place was packed for the Neumann game. It wasn’t just students. It was great community support.”
And speaking of community support, DeGregorio met with folks from the newly-renovated Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester. The arena, which houses the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, was enthusiastic, DeGregorio said, about partnering with the league.
The result of such a partnership could be a permanent home for the annual Atlantic Hockey championships, which this year will be played at the campus site of the top remaining seed entering the semifinals.
“We’d like to find a home for our tournament similar to Hockey East and what they have,” said DeGregorio, a former commissioner of Hockey East who, during his tenure, saw the HEA championship grow in popularity. “We need to find a facility that wants to be involved and we need to find a sponsor.”
A second choice for a tournament site was another visit on DeGregorio’s list: the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn. The venue has played host at times to Sacred Heart during the regular season, and after his visit, DeGregorio said he was more than impressed and would consider that a possibility for the conference tourney.
Harbor Yard, according to DeGregorio, also is interested in teaming with Sacred Heart to make a bid for the next cycle of regional tournaments. Currently, regional bids have been made through 2007, so the next awarding will likely cover the 2008, 2009 and 2010 championships.
Said DeGregorio about the regionals, “I offered my support in any way that I could to the arena and the people at Sacred Heart.”
Not part of the conversation with Harbor Yard was the possibility of hosting this year’s tournament there should Sacred Heart, which currently sits in first place in the league, be the highest remaining seed come March. The Pioneers currently play at the Milford Ice Pavilion, a fine site for regular-season games but possibly not a facility that could handle a league championship.
As for when the league will know more on all of these developments, the imminent announcement likely will have to do with RIT. Assuming the Tigers are admitted on Friday, that announcement could be made as early as next week.
The final step to expansion, then, would be to find team number 10 — the target number according to DeGregorio. Last week, the commissioner said that league officials will conduct a site visit at Air Force in January.