This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 17, 2005

Clichés Aside

We’re at the point of the season when coach-speak runs rampant.

“We’re taking things one game at a time.”

“Well, this game is the most important one because it’s our next game. Every game at this point in the year gets more important.”

“We have to play a team game if we’re going to be successful.”

There’s probably another dozen I could throw at you, but you get the point.

So the only way that we can really talk about the “critical” games is for us media folks to bring in the hype.

This week the hype lands in Bridgeport, Conn., when, for the second week in a row, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross will square off in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Round one of the two-week battle went to Sacred Heart, which invaded Holy Cross last Friday and walked out with a 5-3 win from a game in which Holy Cross head coach Paul Pearl said his team played “extremely well.”

“It’s two very similar teams,” Pearl said. “We both like to get up and down the sheet. We both like our teams to finish checks. And we’re both very skilled up front. It makes for very good hockey.”

Indeed, skill at the forward position is something of which both teams should be proud. Holy Cross’ first line of Tyler McGregor, James Sixsmith and Pierre Napert-Frenette likely comprise the league’s most complete offensive trios. The Pioneers balance that with a dual combination of Garrett Larson, Rocco Molinaro and Nick Kary, as well as William Billinghurst, Pierre-Luc O’Brien and Alex Parent.

On the other side of the puck, both team’s goaltenders are playing well. Kevin LaPointe was named goalie of the week last week, while Tony Quesada and Ben Conway continue to show consistency in the Holy Cross net. Conway saw the bulk of play last weekend for Holy Cross, entering in relief of Quesada last Friday night before posting a 40-save performance on Saturday in a 5-2 win over Quinnipiac.

So as you line up both teams, and stir in the fact that Holy Cross stands just a point ahead of Sacred Heart in the standings, it’s understandable why we media folks might want to add some hype.

“From a confidence standpoint, for us, it’s important,” said Pearl, whose club would probably like some retribution for last week’s loss. “We feel like we’ve been playing fairly well.”

Hannah’s thoughts are similar, but in the end, it’s hard to eliminate the coach-speak.

“There’s no question that it’s got standings implications,” Hannah said of the Holy Cross game. “It’s the last game of the season with Holy Cross and [the season series is] tied right now.

“But it’s our next game so that’s important. Every game in the dying weeks of February is important.”

The Pioneers, have reached their current stature unnoticed by many. Though the club opened eyes last season with their first-ever appearance in the league finals, this year it might have been easier to notice a group of lopsided nonconference losses than Sacred Heart’s ascent to the pinnacle of the league.

“I think there’s been some attention on other teams for good reasons,” said Hannah. “Holy Cross is the defending champ and Mercyhurst has always been at the top. Quinnipiac is in their final year before moving to the ECAC. They’ve garnered a lot of attention which is all deserved.

“We’re a team that hasn’t been at that setting. So we’re focused on what we have to do to win the championship. That’s what’s put us in the position that we’re in today.”

Sacred Heart controls its destiny. With a game in hand on Holy Cross and one point separating the Pioneers from the conference-leading Crusaders, if Sacred Heart wins its last six, it will clinch its first conference title.

“We know that,” said Hannah of controlling destiny. “That’s why it’s a one step at a time, one game at a time approach. Every game is a big game.”

Ah, the sweet clichés.

Rest assured though, for both Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, the scent of ultimate success is near. For three weeks, though, it will come down to execution.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

David Wrigley, Mercyhurst: At a time when the Lakers were in need of offense, David Wrigley provided just that. The senior forward buried four goals and added two assists as the Lakers swept Army to keep pace with the league’s top four in the race for home ice.

Rookie of the Week

Ben Nelson, Quinnipiac

For the second straight week, Quinnipiac’s Ben Nelson captured league awards. This time, his four points included two goals and two assists in Quinnipiac’s weekend split with American International and Holy Cross. Nelson is currently on a school-best six-game scoring streak and has 12 goals in just 15 games with the Bobcats.

Goaltender of the Week

Sixty-two saves on 66 shots was enough for Sacred Heart’s Kevin LaPointe to edge out UConn’s Scott Tomes for goalie of the week honors. LaPointe earned big-time wins against Holy Cross and AIC to temporarily move the Pioneers into first place. Holy Cross jumped back over Sacred Heart on Tuesday with a win over UConn, but the Pioneers still have a game in hand.

The Numbers Are In

Atlantic Hockey fans, make your travel plans for Buffalo.

An in-depth look at the remaining schedules of the nine Atlantic Hockey team reveal that if anyone is going to win this championship, it’s going to be Canisius.

(And for those who may have forgotten, winning the championship guarantees home ice for the entire playoffs.)

Examining the remaining schedules of all nine Atlantic Hockey teams, Canisius has the easiest slate by far. The Griffs have six games against three opponents: Quinnipiac, Bentley and Army, all for two games. The average winning percentage of the three clubs is .401.

Conversely, Mercyhurst has the most difficult slate down the stretch. The Lakers’ three series are against Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart, which post a combined average winning percentage of .618.

Ironically, taking Canisius out of the bunch, the other four clubs fighting for the top spot (as well as for home ice in general), all have tough stretches ahead. Sacred Heart faces Holy Cross and American International once each, before playing two-game sets with Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst, with three of those four games on the road.

Holy Cross is faced with Sacred Heart this weekend and then two against Mercyhurst next weekend. The Crusaders close with a home-and-home against Bentley.

Quinnipiac, the only team with seven games remaining, sees two games against Canisius, AIC and Sacred Heart, and a single remaining game with Connecticut.

So as you can see, for the top of the league, no schedule is really that easy.

And with that in mind, maybe you can say the same for Canisius.

Certainly, four of the Griffs’ six remaining games (two vs. Bentley, two vs. Army) appears to be likely wins. But are they? Army, despite a .167 winning percentage, is proving a tough opponent down the stretch. The Black Knights have lost nine one-goal games in league play, meaning that the slightest change of fortune could have had them fighting for home ice.

At the same time, Canisius has ground to make up. The Griffs are three points behind Holy Cross and two behind Sacred Heart. Thus success will only come by playing mistake-free down the stretch.

As interesting as the mix is at the top of the league, the bottom, too, has some solid scenarios. AIC and Army may seem like they’ve sewed the bottom two spots in the league, but Bentley, the current seventh seed, still has two head-to-head matchups with ninth-place Army, and also has to face Canisius and Holy Cross twice. Even one win, though, at this point for Bentley should keep it from the 8 vs. 9 play-in game.

In case you don’t feel like doing the math yourself, here is the ranking by strength of remaining schedule:

Rk Team, Opp. Win%
1. Canisius, .401
2. Army, .417
3. AIC, .466
4. Bentley, .497
5. Connecticut, .509
6. Quinnipiac, .512
7. Holy Cross, .528
8. Sacred Heart, .561
9. Mercyhurst, .617

Chasing 3,000

Reading the news around the league, it’s good to see AIC’s Frank Novello finally getting the credit he deserves. The senior goaltender for the Yellow Jackets has been nothing short of magnificent when you look at his stats throughout his career.

This season, he’s shouldered the complete load for AIC and rewritten pretty much every school record in the process. Barring injury, Novello will almost certainly lead the country in saves at season’s end.

Novello has stopped 934 shots and will easily break the 1,000-save plateau this weekend. At the same time, a look at his career numbers shows it’s quite possible for him to hit 3,000 saves overall.

Despite splitting time over the last three seasons, Novello still amassed 1,736 saves. That leaves him 330 stops short of 3,000 with six regular-season and one guaranteed playoff game remaining.

Quick math would tell us that’s 47 or so saves per game that Novello would need, a stretch until you look at some recent totals.

In a 6-3 loss last week to Quinnipiac, Novello had 46 saves. Against Sacred Heart the next night Novello’s total was lowered to 38. Bentley peppered Novello with 54 shots.

So 47 saves is not exactly out of the question. And should AIC win a quarterfinal, or the 8 vs. 9 play-in game, it would give AIC a total of eight more games to reduce the average shot count to 42.

Fleet-ing Success

It may have only lasted one day, but the success that Atlantic Hockey realized in its shot at the big time was enough to notice.

The league, for the first time ever, brought four teams to the FleetCenter last Saturday. The move, initiated by FleetCenter exec and longtime college hockey supporter Steve Nazro, came about as part of the NHL lockout with the FleetCenter looking for different ways to fill dates.

It was a great opportunity for the league and the four schools involved. A total of 4,055 fans attended the two-game event, with Holy Cross (a 5-2 winner over Quinnipiac) and Connecticut (a 4-1 winner over Bentley in the nightcap) walking away winners.

“I thought we had a pretty decent turnout for the first time that we’ve done this,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “For our school it was a nice opportunity for our fans. We had sold out of our [500 allotted student tickets] earlier in the week, so we were turning away fans and telling them they had to buy them [at the FleetCenter].”

The ability of the league to keep ticket costs low helped make the event successful. Students could purchase $5 tickets on campus. Tickets at the FleetCenter box office were $10.

In the end, the league was close to break-even on the event. According to commissioner Bob DeGregorio, though they’d hoped for 5,000 fans, this is a good step forward.

“Attendance is something you have to work on,” said DeGregorio. “Hockey East, when they first [played the conference tournament] at the [Boston] Garden, didn’t sell the place out. Over 20 years, it’s an event now similar to the Beanpot.

“When you create an event, eventually you have a track record and a history.”