This Week in Atlantic Hockey: March 10, 2005

One Down, Eight to Go

A lot has happened since last week, including the crowning of a regular-season champion, a dramatic race for home ice, and even the elimination of the first team from the postseason, though only after a snow-delayed day’s wait.

First off, hats off to Quinnipiac. Left for dead in mid-January when the Bobcats made a quick visit to seventh place in the league standings, QU made the ultimate rally and, after a victory at UConn last Thursday night, sewed up its third regular-season championship before the final weekend of play was even under way.

Some around the league will meet Quinnipiac’s league championship will a bit of discontent. There is likely a perception that the victory by the Bobcats, heading for greener pastures next season in the ECACHL, sends a so-so message about the strength of the remainder of the league.

Personally, I see the other side of the picture.

Quinnipiac built a nice rally down the stretch but struggled for much of the season mostly because of the improved level of play among Atlantic Hockey competitors.

Even looking ahead to this weekend’s quarterfinal playoff game for the Bobcats, opponent Army looks none too inviting.

Though Quinnipiac swept the season series against the Black Knights, the final two games required third-period rallies, the first from two goals down to win in overtime and the second from a goal down late in the third to post a 4-3 win in regulation.

Needless to say, getting past this weekend won’t be the easiest task, particularly in a single-elimination format.

Outside of Quinnipiac, three other teams wrapped up home dates last weekend with the tightest finish to a season in league history.

Canisius and Mercyhurst finished tied for second, with the Griffs winning the tiebreaker over the ‘Hurst for the number-two seed. Positioning, though, wasn’t the most important thing for these two teams that easily each saved eight to 10 hours in a bus by earning the home date.

Canisius will face Bentley in the quarterfinals, a rematch of a series that took place just two weekends ago that saw the two clubs split a series in Buffalo. Canisius did win the season series but it’s impossible not to wonder if an upset could be brewing.

A season ago, it was Canisius that pulled off the first-round upset, knocking out Quinnipiac in overtime. This time the Griffs are the hunted, not the hunters, and Bentley has a little bit more experience than last year, when it relinquished a two-goal third period lead against Mercyhurst in the quarterfinals.

Speaking of the ‘Hurst, having sat on the outside looking in for home ice a couple of weeks ago, it has to be a little more satisfying for head coach Rick Gotkin now that he’s staying at home. But bringing in UConn, a Jekyll-and-Hyde underdog, can’t leave the Lakers with easy feelings.

Similar to Canisius, Mercyhurst lost to UConn on home ice recently — three weekends ago. The Lakers rebounded the next night thanks to the goaltending of rookie Mike Ella. Since then, Ella has made every start for the ‘Hurst and his perfect 5-0-0 record propelled Mercyhurst into home ice.

The final series of the quarterfinals is probably the least expected and most intriguing matchup. In a rematch of last year’s championship game, Holy Cross will host Sacred Heart in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game. What makes the matchup so intriguing is the fact that just a few weeks earlier both Sacred Heart and Holy Cross were potential regular-season champs.

Neither club, though, enters the playoffs on a high. Holy Cross finished the season on a 1-3-1 skid, while Sacred Heart was even worse, losing each of its last five games to drop from the top spot all the way to fifth.

This game may be a battle of wills. Both coaches are playoff-tested and both have proven track records. Sacred Heart’s Shaun Hannah often is thought of as getting more out of his team than expected come the postseason, with last year’s Cinderella ride to the championship game the perfect example.

Alas, in all of this mess, we have to say goodbye to American International. Though a crippling snowstorm allowed a one-day stay of execution for the Yellow Jackets, AIC finally fell to Army on Wednesday night, 5-3, in the play-in game.

With that, of course, closes the college career for goaltender Frank Novello, who over time became respected as one of the best goaltenders in the league. Adding 28 saves to his career total on Wednesday night in defeat, Novello finished with 2,916 stops and a career save percentage of .911.

Prognosticator Or Guesser?

If you’ve read my column on a weekly basis or anywhere near that, you’ll notice that each week I try to correctly predict the outcome of each game in Atlantic Hockey. For all of the years that I’ve done this (I believe it’s either six or seven now, though it’s easy to lose count) I’ve done well enough to keep a running tally along with the predictions.

This year, I forgot to include that tally one week around Christmas and at that point just lost track completely. Though that sounds like a great excuse, I’m awaiting the email from my writing brethren to tell me that I stopped posting my results because I just plain ol’ stink at prognosticating.

They’d be right. This easily has been the most difficult year to predict anything in Atlantic Hockey. Parity in this league has probably been better than any other league in the country. There were few if any blowouts in league play. Eighth place Army was a handful of fortunate bounces from being a fourth-place team.

Needless to say, when it came to picking games this year, I was way off the mark.

I feel, because of that, I owe something to my faithful readers.

So here you have it: three take-it-to-the-bank first-round predictions (and one that I’m just not so sure of — you, though, have to figure out which one is which).

No. 8 Army at No. 1 Quinnipiac

Season series: Quinnipiac leads 3-0-0
11/27/04: at Quinnipiac 5, Army 1
1/28/05: at Quinnipiac 5, Army 4
1/29/05: Quinnipiac 4, Army 3

As I mentioned up above, this isn’t your typical 1 vs. 8 matchup. Army quite possibly is the best eighth-place team this league has seen. Gone are the days, then, of first round 11-2 blowouts.

What separates this team, though, is depth. Quinnipiac can and will skate four lines that are dangerous. Army, though, with only six 10-plus point scorers isn’t as dangerous offensively.

If there were to be an upset, though, in this game it would come from the play of Army goaltender Brad Roberts. Roberts missed the early part of the season with injury but has shown form of old at times that once earned him all-league honors as a rookie.

One player, though, may not be enough to stifle the red-hot Reid Cashman, who as a defenseman led the league in scoring and has notched 15 points in his last six games.

Prediction: It won’t be a cakewalk, but Quinnipiac will advance. Quinnipiac, 3-2.

No. 7 Bentley at No. 2 Canisius

Season series: Canisius leads, 2-1-0
11/5/04: Canisius 5, at Bentley 3
2/25/05: Bentley 4, at Canisius 3
2/26/05: at Canisius 2, Bentley 1

Okay, so I’ll make it easy on you. This is the prediction about which I’m not very sure. Canisius has proven all season that it’s a solid team. Bentley simply has not.

But when you take a quick look down Bentley’s list of win, included in the list is Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst, Canisius and Holy Cross. If you could just flip a 3-2 loss to Quinnipiac, the Falcons would have beat each of the top five teams (heck, four out of five ain’t bad).

To me, for some reason, this one screams upset. Bentley hasn’t scored a lot of goals, but the Falcons have distributed the scoring well. A player like Brendan McCartin can be dangerous at any time. And Simon St. Pierre has at times carried this team.

Then there’s Canisius.

Forgot about the fact that Canisius has a top-notch goaltender. Or that more than a dozen players reached double-digits in scoring. Throw all of that aside.

Canisius, simply put, has something to prove. This team has gone through hell and back this year and still stands. They’ve had their coach fired, numerous off-ice issues involving players and eventually were the firestarters in an incident that led to athletic director Tim Dillon’s resignation.

For all of this, Canisius wants to prove that, at least on the ice, they’re worthy of praise and recognition.

Prediction: I bet y’all think I’m picking Canisius. Despite all the reasons I’ve lined up why Canisius should win, I’m going with my gut and picking Bentley. Bentley, 4-3.

No. 6 Connecticut at No. 3 Mercyhurst

Season series: Mercyhurst leads, 2-1-0
11/6/04: Mercyhurst 6, at Connecticut 3
2/18/05: Connecticut 4, at Mercyhurst 3 (OT)
2/19/05: at Mercyhurst 3, Connecticut 1

Mercyhurst enters this year’s tournament with a very nice distinction among fellow Atlantic Hockey members: it has never lost a quarterfinal playoff game since joining Division I.

As positive as that sounds, that doesn’t make things any easier.

Rick Gotkin’s squad is an excellent postseason team. Regardless of that fact, one loss means that the season is over. And throughout this season, that one loss here and one loss there has come a lot more frequently than in the past.

Going back just a few weeks, one of the “one losses” came at home against none other than UConn. That doesn’t just make an upset here feasible, it would make it simply a déjà vu.

When you look at UConn’s squad, the nickname I used earlier — Jekyll and Hyde — is a pretty fitting description of the team. One night the Huskies put forth the necessary effort and come out on top (if you look at the scores, a few of these wins have come by lop-sided margins). Other nights, effort is simply missing.

UConn could pull an upset here, there’s no doubt about it, but they’ll need to play a very solid road game. Mercyhurst is a very good team. That may not come across in the Lakers record. Beating Mercyhurst on the road, though, would take a near perfect road game – limiting penalties, taking advantage of mistakes and getting top-notch goaltending.

At the same time, the Huskies will need to solve goaltender Mike Ella. Though early in the year he struggled, given a chance three weeks ago by Gotkin, Ella answered with five straight wins to close the regular-season slate.

This one might look like a coin toss on paper, but something tells me this is a pretty nice lock.

Prediction: This one goes to Mercyhurst and I say that confidently. Mercyhurst, 5-2.

No. 5 Sacred Heart at No. 4 Holy Cross

Season series: Sacred Heart, 2-1-0
1/4/05: Holy Cross 3, at Sacred Heart 2 (OT)
2/11/05: Sacred Heart 5, at Holy Cross 3
2/18/05: Sacred Heart 2, at Holy Cross 1

I sat at home this past weekend at looked at Holy Cross’ recent performance and thought, man how bad is that? Thankfully for them, the Crusaders ended the season on a high note, slaughtering Bentley, 7-2, in the season finale. But before that, the ‘Cross hadn’t won in two and a half weeks, piling together three straight losses to Mercyhurst twice and Sacred Heart).

Minutes later I found another team on as bad — well, make that a worse — run: Holy Cross’ first-round opponent, Sacred Heart. The Pioneers haven’t won since that victory over Holy Cross on February 18, and in that five-game span have scored just 10 goals.

Go figure.

The translation is that there’s almost nothing to make of this game. It’s the only quarterfinal in which the underdog captured the season series. It’s being played in Worcester, where Sacred Heart has not lost this year. It’s the rematch of last year’s title tilt, though two rounds earlier.

Still, I have nothing to make of this game.

Either of these teams could win this tournament. Both have the ability to produce offensively. Both have top-notch goaltending. And both have sufficient experience, not to mention success, in the tournament to advance to the title game.

That’s what makes this strange. At the end of the day, one of what many considered the top two teams in the league entering this year will be gone.

In a way, a part of me believes that the venue doesn’t matter. The fact that Holy Cross is on home ice only means that Sacred Heart isn’t used to the locker room, and that the Crusaders have last change. Neither is enough to win championships.

What is critical, though, is desire. Both teams have something to prove, namely that they’re better than a fourth- or fifth-place finish represents. Whichever team executes upon that desire will win.

It’s confusing. It’s strange. But at the same time, it’s very simple.

Prediction: Flip a coin — no joke. Mine came up heads, so I’m going with Holy Cross.