This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 24, 2005

Sixth Grade Math

I’ll admit it. I was the ultimate nerd growing up. I was way ahead of my age level when it came to math, specifically, and I have been told by many that I have the analytical mind for statistics.

It’s no surprise, then, that when we edge towards the playoffs that it’s hard for me not to think numbers, particularly as they relate to the standings.

This year in Atlantic Hockey can, then, be considered either a nightmare or a dream come true.

Never in my memory has a leaderboard been so packed this late in the year. After Quinnipiac’s 3-2 victory over American International on Wednesday night, one point now separates the top three teams, there’s two points between the top four teams and only four points between first-place Sacred Heart and fifth-place Mercyhurst.

Heck, for good measure, we shouldn’t leave out Connecticut. The Huskies are six points behind Sacred Heart, but they are the one team in the league with only two games remaining. The highest that UConn could possibly finished is fifth, as the best it can hope for is a tie for fourth with Canisius — and the Huskies lose the tiebreaker having been swept this season by the Griffs.

The rest of the league, though, is up for grabs.

That includes the cellar dwellers. Bentley, Army and AIC are all battling to avoid the eight-nine play-in game. A week ago it looked like a cinch that Army and AIC would meet in the season’s first playoff tilt, but after Army swept Bentley last weekend, all three of those teams are now within two points of one another.

So let’s start doing some math.

One team and one team only can clinch the conference title this weekend, and that’s first-place Sacred Heart. Conventional thinking would design the scenario as this: The Pioneers sweep Quinnipiac, Mercyhurst sweeps Holy Cross, and Canisius picks up two or fewer points against Bentley. Then Sacred Heart would have a five-point lead over Holy Cross and Quinnipiac, and minimally a four-point lead over Canisius (Sacred Heart owns the tiebreaker versus Canisius).

But that doesn’t factor in Mercyhurst, which, as part of our assumptions, gets two wins against Holy Cross. Those two wins would pull the ‘Hurst within four points of Sacred Heart with the two clubs battling head-to-head next weekend. That leaves the Lakers in striking distance.

There is, though, one way to change the scenario and sew up a title for Sacred Heart. If Sacred Heart sweeps Quinnipiac, Canisius picks up two or fewer points against Bentley and Mercyhurst earns exactly three points against Holy Cross, it leaves Sacred Heart five points ahead of Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac, and four points ahead of Canisius and Holy Cross, against whom Sacred Heart owns both tiebreakers.

See, I told you I’m a math geek.

Conversely, Sacred Heart is the only club that can open up a sufficient lead this weekend to clinch. Even if swept, the largest lead any team could hold on Sacred Heart is three.

With first place out of the way, how about home ice. This is a much trickier situation.

Obviously, Army, AIC and Bentley are all out of the hunt. As already mentioned, Connecticut also has fallen by the roadside.

Sacred Heart is one of two teams that controls home-ice destiny. Should the Pioneers sweep this weekend, they’d be assured home ice. The second team is Holy Cross. Because they bump head-to-head with the fifth place Lakers, earning three or four points would sufficiently pad the Crusaders’ lead over Mercyhurst to ensure the ‘Cross a home game.

Every other team needs a little bit of help.

In reality, it now becomes the job of the top four teams to eliminate Mercyhurst. If Holy Cross can pull off a sweep, Canisius would need just two points and Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac would need splits in their series to lock up all four home-ice spots.

If none of these scenarios takes place, home ice will come down to the final weekend.

At the bottom of the league, it would seem that Bentley is in the driver’s seat to lock up the seven seed and avoid the play-in game. But the Falcons are winless since January 28 and have picked up just one point in their last six.

Army, on the other hand, is tied with AIC for eighth, four points behind Bentley, and, besides having swept Bentley last weekend, had four one-goal losses out of five games against the league’s top teams leading up to the sweep.

The key, then, in the battle of the bottom comes this weekend. AIC and Army clash head-to-head, meaning four points either way would all but secure last place for the loser (Army, actually, could still catch Bentley in the season’s final week if the Falcons were swept this week as well) and put the winner in the driver’s seat to jump up to seventh.

Although fans may not be so concerned about who plays whom when it comes to the play-in game, the league does.

Should Army finish eighth and host the play-in game, the league would stand to benefit from a significantly larger attendance in West Point than they’d get at either AIC or Bentley. The ticket revenues from playoff games go directly to the league.

So there’s plenty at stake this weekend, but my guess is that come Saturday night little will be decided. Which means only one thing: my nerdy math mind will return next week.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Jeff Valdes, American International: It was an upset that AIC needed in its quest to avoid last place. And thanks to the efforts of Valdes, the Yellow Jackets pulled off a stunning 4-1 upset of Sacred Heart. Valdes scored twice on Saturday night to elevate AIC into a tie for eighth with Army.

Rookie of the Week

Ben Nelson, Quinnipiac: Amidst a crisis of decision-making on just how many consecutive league awards Nelson can receive, thankfully the league made the correct choice and awarded him rookie of the week after a four-goal weekend against Canisius. That included Nelson’s second hat trick in an injury-shortened season.

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army: Army has been waiting for a long time to be successful in close games. Thanks in part to Roberts, last week Army tasted success. The junior netminder stopped 31 of 34 shots on the weekend to help the Black Knights pull off a sweep of Bentley and move into a tie for eighth with AIC.

The Full Nelson

The date was January 13. Quinnipiac, playing its final season in Atlantic Hockey before moving its program to the ECACHL beginning next year, was almost laughingly sitting in seventh place in Atlantic Hockey.

The Bobcats had hit rock bottom.

Coach Rand Pecknold said at the time that the combination of injuries and the team’s lack of scoring had led to a lack of confidence. But he also said that he believed firmly that his team would rebound.

By now, we all know how the story ends. Well, maybe not ends, as this season still has four regular-season games remaining for the Bobcats. But it’s simple to see that Quinnipiac will not be finishing in seventh place. There’s a strong likelihood that the Bobcats will get home ice, and with four games remaining, the Q still has a strong chance at winning the league.

According to Pecknold, the turnaround has to be credited to his club’s ability to score goals. What was originally a one-dimensional, one-line team has become a full-fledged offensive threat of late. When one looks at the stats page, one name jumps out that may explain the Bobcats’ offensive surge.

Ben Nelson, a rookie from Spokane, Wash., has provided an offensive spark like no other for the Bobcats, who with a win on Wednesday over AIC climbed into a tie for second place, just a point behind Sacred Heart.

Since that fateful January 13 date, Nelson has scored 14 goals and eight assists in just 12 games. Over that stretch, Quinnipiac is 9-3-0.

“Ben Nelson has been a huge shot in the arm,” said Pecknold of his rookie phenom. “Everyone was talking about our power play and its lack of scoring earlier in the year and, I knew it was that we were missing Nelson.”

Nelson missed the first 11 games for Quinnipiac after injuring himself in the weight room over the offseason. He returned to the ice on December 5 versus Holy Cross, but according to Pecknold didn’t look like the player the coach knew he could be.

“He scored a nice goal that game [his first game back against Holy Cross], but his timing and his conditioning were off,” said Pecknold. “He struggled a few games after that and it took him three or four games to get going.”

Since he’s been “going,” as Pecknold put it, he’s been virtually unstoppable. At one point he scored goals in a school-record six consecutive games. He’s twice scored hat tricks, including last Saturday night in a key win over Canisius. Currently, he has a 10-game point-scoring streak and with 24 points in 18 games has one of the best point-per-game averages in the nation.

“Even bigger than the conditioning was the confidence,” said Pecknold of what Nelson knew he needed to improve. “Now his confidence is through the roof. He feels like he can score every time he’s on the ice.

“When you look at him, he’s a goal-scorer. He finds a way to score goals. He gets pretty ones, the ones that make you drop your jaw. But he’ll also stand in front of the net and do all the dirty work. He’s a little bit of a Cam Neely-type of power forward. He just has a knack for the net.”

One question that Quinnipiac will face is whether it can rely on a rookie to carry the club once the pressure of the postseason is on him. That, though, doesn’t seem to be a concern for Pecknold.

“One of the reasons we’ve done well since we were in seventh place is because we don’t rely on anybody,” Pecknold said. “We have some balance. The pressure isn’t on one line to score.

“Now we’ve got the two lines that have gotten it going. And our third and fourth lines are chipping in here and there. We don’t have to rely only on Ben Nelson and that takes pressure off him and all the guys.”

One for the Record Books

It should come as no surprise that Frank Novello has notched his name in the AIC record books. With a 46-save effort against Quinnipiac on Wednesday night, Novello surpassed goaltender Chance Thede for the highest single-season save total in school history.

Thede finished the 2000-01 season with 1,001 saves, and was the only AIC goaltender to eclipse 1,000 saves in a season. Novello currently has 1,013 saves and is on pace to finish upwards of 1,200 stops this season.

It does, though, look like Novello is going to fall shy of 3,000 on his career. He’s still 251 saves short of that mark, meaning he’ll need to average 50.2 saves per game if the Yellow Jackets don’t advance past their first playoff game. That, though, isn’t out of the equation.