The Never-Ending Question
Connecticut coach Bruce Marshall, when asked if Atlantic Hockey teams are beginning to close the gap between themselves and clubs in Hockey East, had a quick comeback.
“You guys [the media] love to ask that question, don’t you?” he quipped.
Truth is, the media and a lot of fans in Atlantic Hockey do, indeed, like to talk about how the league is maturing.
I’m not sure why, but personally I’m obsessed with the topic. Maybe it’s because the league is relatively new. Maybe it’s because, as media, we watched Atlantic Hockey teams act as the doormat of college hockey for so long. Maybe it’s because, even as the media that follows the league, we writers take jabs from the other conference writers (okay, I just sounded like a nine-year-old getting picked on).
But right now, this is a hot topic.
Two wins for the league against Hockey East last weekend made the topic even hotter.
Holy Cross’ 3-2 upset of Massachusetts on Friday night got things started. Connecticut following that up a night later by beating Merrimack furthered matters. But for both coaches, the answer to the question, “Is this gap closing?” might not be the one you expect.
“I think the gap may be closing,” said Marshall. “But we’re not going out this weekend and playing New Hampshire for two and then heading to Lowell for two [as a Hockey East club like Merrimack is].”
As Marshall noted, it’s nice to beat a Hockey East opponent, but it means nothing come season’s end if UConn isn’t near the top of the AHA standings.
Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl was even more frank.
“I just hope more than any gap closing that we talk about that as we continue to do well in non-league play, we get more of a following,” said Pearl, noting that as a league what sets Atlantic Hockey apart most from leagues like Hockey East is low attendance. “The biggest thing our league lacks is fans. To get more of that atmosphere around the league is what we want.
“None of us have a 5,000-seat facility, but we could all stand to get more of a collegiate feel to our building. It would be good to have more people in tune with our league on a day-to-day basis.”
Pearl said that the exposure that the league lacks is what makes people across the nation believe that its members are underdogs every time they take the ice.
“People need to see that Mercyhurst is a good hockey team,” said Pearl. “They’re not a good Atlantic Hockey team. They’re a good hockey team.”
Like Marshall, Pearl likes to keep his emotions in check when talking about the ramifications of winning big non-league games.
“I don’t think all of a sudden because we beat UMass that we’re going to start stealing recruits from Harvard, but with that said, it certainly helps our program and it draws some more favorable attention to our league.”
Player of the Week
Ryan Lessnau, Bentley: It was easy to pick Lessnau as player of the week, seeing as he factored into four of the five goals that Bentley scored on the weekend. Impressive was his performance in Friday night’s 3-2 victory over Robert Morris, where he assisted on the first two goals and scored the eventual game-winner.
Goaltender of the Week
Tony Quesada, Holy Cross: In a league filled with good goaltenders, one way to win this award is to pull a major non-league upset. That’s exactly what Quesada did, stopping 22 of 24 shots in a 3-2 upset of UMass.
Co-Rookies of the Week
Jon Anderson, Connecticut: As a goaltender, the best way to start off your career is with a win. Anderson did just that, stopping 36 of 37 shots that Merrimack threw his way on Saturday night to pull off the 2-1 upset victory.
Kai Magnussen, Holy Cross: Paul Pearl said the two things that excited him in Friday night’s upset of UMass was that his first line didn’t have to score a goal to get the victory and that two rookies combined for the game-winning goal late in regulation. Magnussen, for his part in scoring the goal, earned a share of the league’s rookie of the week award.
In Holy Cross’ upset win at UMass on Friday, the script was written for the Crusaders to lose. As had happened so many times to Atlantic Hockey teams in non-league action, Holy Cross played UMass tight for the entire game, carried a 1-1 tie late into regulation and then, suddenly, surrendered the go-ahead goal to the opposition.
On Friday, what looked to be the death knell came with 6:37 remaining when Stephen Werner gave UMass a 2-1 lead.
Holy Cross, though, didn’t crumble.
And when Rob Godfrey scored with 3:25 remaining in regulation, the game looked destined for overtime.
Sixty-seven seconds later, though, rookie Kai Magnussen found the net, gave Holy Cross a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish and, one game into the season, a reason to believe.
“To be able to play our best hockey of the night late in the game, it was good to see,” said Pearl. “The guys didn’t hang their heads on the bench, which was a good sign, especially this early [in the season].”
Pearl credits his club with playing a smart game against UMass. Though the final shot total read 34-24 in Holy Cross’ favor, Pearl says the game was evenly-matched.
“I thought [when UMass] controlled it at times, it didn’t necessarily result in shots,” said Pearl. “We were into our systems pretty good and did some nice things there. We got our scoring from our second and third lines, which is nice. You don’t want to be a one-line team.”
What was most impressive for Pearl was the play of his defense. Having lost Tony Coskern, a workhorse who could log up to 35 minutes each game, to graduation, Pearl wasn’t sure how his current corps would react in a game situation.
“It’s not one of those situations where we have that top-end guy [on defense],” said Pearl. “We just have a lot of kids who are very good players, and that’s a positive.”
Polished Rookie Shines For Huskies
If there was one notable item on the scoresheet of UConn’s 2-1 victory against Merrimack Saturday night, it was the name of the UConn goaltender.
Jon Anderson, playing in his first career game for UConn, not only was given the nod by Marshall but proved he was up to the task. Anderson impressively stopped 36 of 37 Warrior shots on the night, showing Marshall that he has yet another skilled goaltender in his arsenal.
“He got us the win and that was encouraging,” Marshall said matter-of-factly. “We’re trying to give every guy [on the team] a shot. It’s easier as third-line center to go out and show yourself. With a goaltender, that’s a little harder.
When asked what made Anderson so strong, Marshall believes it was the experience that he gained in junior hockey last season for the Billing Bulls.
“[Anderson] played on a very average team last year so he saw a lot of shots and kept his team in a lot of games,” said Marshall, who will now have to jockey between Anderson and his two established goaltenders, Scott Tomes and Brad Smith, in handing out playing time.
“[Having another goaltender] adds depth and gives us options. I don’t think one game can dictate that a kid has won over the starting job. We’ll give them each the opportunity to see how this thing is going to pan out.”
Which goaltenders will play this weekend against Mercyhurst?
Marshall said simply, “We’re still pondering that situation.”
In sports, college sports in particular, rivalries are a big part of the game. But to be a rivalry, both teams have to believe that they are, indeed, one another’s rival.
Boston University coach Jack Parker once noted that a lot of teams feel like BU is their rival. But to Parker, only one school will ever be BU’s rival — and that’s Boston College.
So amidst a lot of scuttlebutt last weekend about Canisius renewing its rivalry with RIT, don’t blame Griffs head coach Dave Smith for wondering what all the hype was about.
“I don’t know that it’s much of a rivalry because RIT is something like 38-6 [actually 31-7-1] against Canisius,” said Smith.
But though Canisius may not see RIT as its rival right now, Smith believes that there’s a chance that such a rivalry could soon develop.
“They’re a New York school,” Smith said of RIT. “We see them on the road recruiting. We want to be real strong regionally. We’re going to come up against them recruiting and on the ice we’ll play them four times every year. So I think it may be a great rivalry.”
As for last weekend’s series, Smith felt that each of the two games had its own flavor, that Friday’s opening game in Buffalo “was more of a battle,” while Saturday’s rematch in Rochester, which Canisius won, was more in line with the Griffs’ style.
Smith said that Saturday’s rematch wasn’t as physical as Friday, playing into Canisius’ skating style of play. This, Smith believes, is a result of Canisius conditioning to play back-to-back nights.
Smith was, though, impressed with the job that RIT coach Wayne Wilson has done to build a team that will be competitive next year when it joins Atlantic Hockey.
“It’s not a surprise to the coaches,” he said of RIT’s ability to play competitively against Division I teams. “A lot of us respect what Wayne Wilson has been doing at the Division III level. They’re getting good players, developing them properly.”