This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 20, 2005

‘Cross Back on Top

It’s been a tough hill to climb, but after Holy Cross’ weekend road sweep of Mercyhurst and Canisius last weekend, the Crusaders have climbed back to a place that last season became very familiar: the top of the standings.

After beginning the year 1-2-2 in league play, the defending regular-season and postseason champs found themselves looking up at teams like Canisius and Sacred Heart. But since that slow start, the Cross is 7-0-1 in its last eight league games and, heading into this weekend’s action, stands one point ahead of second-place Canisius.

Still, head coach Paul Pearl is only cautiously optimistic. He refuses to give any credence to the upper hand at this point in the season.

“The beginning of the year we started 1-3 in the league and you might not have thought we could come in first,” said Pearl. “Now we’re [in first], we still don’t think that we’re there. It proves how quickly things can change. We have to wait until the middle of [February] to see where we’re at.”

He was also adamant that he and his club will not focus on the bonus that accompanies first place this season: the ability to host the semifinals and finals of the league tournament, provided, of course, that you advance past the first round.

“If you focus on that, you’re screwed,” said Pearl. “If you don’t do the [New England] Patriots thing and focus on one day at a time you’re screwed in our league.

“To think that a one-point lead in January means something, you’re crazy. The race is going to balance itself out because we all still have to play everybody and we’re all balanced. I don’t think you can start looking at the standings until Valentine’s day.”

Whether or not Holy Cross’ place in the standings holds weight, what does is the fact that its recent solid play has come despite having key players out of the lineup with injuries.

Holy Cross has been playing without top defenseman Tony Coskern as well as forwards Blair Bartlett and Sean Nappo. Pearl gave no indication whether any of them will return in the near future.

“The guys who have come into the lineup have played great,” said Pearl. “We’ve been rolling four lines and six [defensemen] and using both goalies all year. And we didn’t change that when we lost anybody.

“The other thing that is going well is the expanded role for some of the freshmen when they get used to playing college hockey. By January you hope your freshmen aren’t playing like freshmen anymore and that has been the case.”

With last weekend’s road trip to the western- and northern-most tips of the league grueling for most teams, the way the Crusaders responded not just by winning, but coming from two goals down in each game, impressed their head coach.

“I think it’s great for our team,” said Pearl. “Having so many new faces, to go there, it’s a confidence thing of us having to win in tough circumstances. That will pay dividends down the road.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Tyler McGregor, Holy Cross: McGregor’s four-point effort, including three goals, against Mercyhurst and Canisius was enough to propel the Crusaders to two road wins, both of the come-from-behind nature. It was also enough to extend his current point-scoring streak to six games.

Rookie of the Week

Jereme Tendler, American International: Tendler scored two goals in AIC’s upset road win over Canisius. The following night he added an assist in a 6-3 loss versus Mercyhurst for a three-point weekend.

Goaltender of the Week

Scott Tomes, Connecticut: After allowing only a goal in two games against Army but settling for a series split two weekends ago, Tomes received the offensive support he needed last week to post a 4-1 win over Quinnipiac. In the game, Tomes make a career-high 48 saves, including 20 in the first period.

Expansion Flying High

The final step of expansion for Atlantic Hockey could be quickly approaching, after commissioner Bob DeGregorio and Canisius athletic director Tim Dillon made their official visit to Air Force, the final candidate for the league’s 2006-07 expansion.

According to DeGregorio, everything went according to plan during the trip and that he was impressed, not just by the school’s athletic facilities but also by the strong support for athletics from the student body.

“This was a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day) and I went to (Air Force’s) basketball game on Saturday against New Mexico and it was packed,” said DeGregorio. “It was the same thing for the hockey game afterwards.”

DeGregorio indicated that the next step will be to convene the athletic directors of Atlantic Hockey’s member schools for a conference call. At that time, DeGregorio will report his observations and recommendations to the directors and then vote on Air Force’s admission.

“If we can get everybody to agree and concur, we’ll be in good shape,” said DeGregorio. “If not it’s back to the drawing board.”

Should Air Force be accepted, that will conclude expansion for ’06-’07, but DeGregorio has not ruled out a second expansion round at a later date.

It will also divide the 10-team league into two five-team “divisions” for scheduling purposes. Each team would play four division partners four times and the five non-division opponents twice for a total of 26 league games. This would help keep teams from making a trip to Air Force (and vice versa) to play a single game, a scenario that would be necessary if one simply played all nine opponents three times each.

“In terms of travel, Air Force would become an automatic trip [for each team],” said DeGregorio, noting that most teams already play Air Force in non-league play. “If they’re in your division, you’d play them every year. If not, you go there every other year.”

The attitudes of the coaches of the league are positive.

“If the powers that be decide that they’re a team to come in, then I’m all for it,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. “Air Force would be a great addition. We play them every year anyway so we might as well play them for points.”

One place it may not sit favorably is with College Hockey America, which would be reduced to five teams with Air Force’s departure, one below the NCAA minimum to receive an automatic qualifier to the postseason tournament.

“The CHA, they know it’s coming,” said DeGregorio. “Out of the five teams that inquired about our league, three were from that league.

“So if it wasn’t Air Force, it would be somebody else. They have a two-year grace period to fill that void and I know that they’re talking to schools already to do that.”

That aside, the excitement to bring Air Force to Atlantic Hockey is easy to sense in the commissioner and seems, now, like it’s just a matter of time.

“Their whole approach to athletics and their desire to be with us is something I like,” said DeGregorio.

Fleet Event Gets Marketing Push

DeGregorio says the February 12 Atlantic Hockey doubleheader at the Fleet will get a marketing push in the coming days. He is working with Boston-area radio and television stations to get the word out and inform fans how to purchase tickets.

On campus, DeGregorio said excitement is high. Connecticut and Quinnipiac have both committed to bringing fans up to Boston on buses. Bentley is giving away “Falcons at the Fleet” t-shirts to students who purchase tickets from the campus box office.

The commissioner said that his hopes are that the crowd for the two-game single-admission event will eclipse 5,000.

Tickets for the event can be purchased at the FleetCenter box office for $10. Student may purchase tickets on campus for $5.

Proving Me Wrong

Go figure. Right after I bemoaned in last week’s column about the lack of offense around the league, member schools had one of their highest-scoring outputs in a long time.

In ten league games last week, the teams scored a combined 66 goals, good for a 6.6 per-game average. Highlighting the stampede to the net were four games (Connecticut’s 5-3 win over Sacred Heart, Holy Cross’ 5-4 win over Mercyhurst, Mercyhurst’s 6-3 win over American International and Sacred Heart’s 6-4 win over Bentley) that each saw at least eight goals.

How to explain this? I’m not sure. Maybe it was something in the water (particularly in Erie, where 19 goals were scored in two nights). Or maybe it’s the pretty-much-permanent return to league play for every team.

Non-league action certainly had an impact on scoring, but it also had a positive effect on team defense. Removing a few ugly scores, most games this season outside of conference play were not only close, but low-scoring on both ends.

And that, come day’s end, is more of a testament to the inherent gap closing between Atlantic Hockey and other leagues than the non-league record itself.

Streak Broken

When American International goaltender Frank Novello was lifted last Saturday night with 21 seconds left to play after turning aside 45 shots in a 6-3 loss at Mercyhurst, it broke an impressive ironman streak for the netminder. Novello had played every minute of every game this season for the Yellow Jackets, and, dating back to the final five games of last season, had played 1184:39 consecutively for AIC.

On only three occasions in that streak did Novello make fewer than 30 saves in a game. Eight times he eclipsed the 40-save mark and in a recent game at Brown made 56 saves, a career-high.

To further prove his value, Novello earned the win Friday night against Canisius with 34 stops, helping his Yellow Jackets keep up as they attempt to battle from last place.

Mea Culpa

If there’s one thing in life that I’m not very good at, it’s proofreading. I know, a writer who can’t proofread — yeah, I’m effective.

So it comes as no surprise that a reader picked up a glaring error in my last column. When talking about the return of Army goaltender Brad Roberts from injury, I referenced head coach Rob Riley, instead of brother Brian, who took over the reins this year.

For that, I’m sure I’ll have to wake up for one of those grueling six-mile morning runs with the cadets as a penance. (By the way, that’s a joke. If I ever tried to run six miles I would move several steps closer to cardiac arrest.)