This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 3, 2005

Blame, Burden Or Opportunity

We’ve all heard by now that the CHA is running into problems in replacing Air Force, which next season will head to Atlantic Hockey as the league’s 10th member. Kennesaw State, which was a potential sixth member for the CHA, doesn’t appear ready to move to the Division I level.

That leaves the league in a whole heap of trouble, knowing that it takes six schools to receive an NCAA tournament automatic qualifier and, at this point, the CHA has but five.

Obviously, the members of the league along with the office are working feverishly to solve the problem. But what I want to look at is how this affects Atlantic Hockey.

Some around the college hockey world may want to point a finger of blame at the league for “stealing” Air Force away. Truth be told, though, Air Force is a better fit for Atlantic Hockey and allows the school to align itself with military brethren Army, thus there’s no surprise Atlantic Hockey is where the Falcons want to be.

But amidst the finger-pointing that could occur, then, could be pressure for Atlantic Hockey to help look for a solution.

When you look at the possible solutions that the league could help facilitate, you come up with two: a current member defects to the CHA or the remaining teams join with the current Atlantic Hockey membership to create one large league.

The first scenario makes no sense for Atlantic Hockey. The last thing that the league wanted was a straight-up trade. If that happened, Atlantic Hockey would be getting the short end of the stick.

The second scenario is better but still not totally beneficial for the current members. Expanding the league to 14 of 15 teams only creates a deeper competition for the coveted automatic qualifier.

The reality of the situation, though, is that one of these two scenarios is likely to play itself out should the CHA be unable to fill the hole.

I wish I had a better solution, but those that I come up with probably aren’t feasible because the other four leagues — the CCHA, WCHA, ECACHL and Hockey East — all are in positions of control. They’re all well-established and wield a lot of the power of Division I hockey. It would be almost impossible to twist any of their arms into helping.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see the WCHA ready to absorb Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji State. I don’t see the ECACHL ready to take on Niagara. And the CCHA’s doors probably won’t open to Robert Morris and Wayne State.

And truly that’s a shame.

Though the CHA has never grown past six teams (which, I feel, itself is part of this problem as the league has never aggressively tackled expansion), it is because of this league and Atlantic Hockey that the other four leagues have what they always wanted: a 16-team tournament.

Which is why I feel that all five remaining conferences should be forced to help here. This isn’t about a fledgling league beginning to fall apart. This is about a growing sport continuing its growth rather than contracting.

In the end, I personally feel that Atlantic Hockey will draw the short straw whether the league like sit or not, which will force it to make applesauce from rotten apples. An expanded league could lead to geographic divisions (east and west, that is) that would increase competition and power. It also might lead to some standardization of scholarship offerings across the Division I level.

For now, though, hockey waits.

It will be interesting to see how the sport — not just one or two conferences — reacts. We can all cross our fingers that what is done, is done for the good of the game.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Scott Champagne, Mercyhurst

The 23-game scoring streak that currently envelops Scott Champagne is impressive enough. To throw a six-point weekend into the mix last weekend puts things over the top. Champagne had a goal in each of the Lakers’ two wins over UConn and on Saturday night added four assists to figure in all five goals. One word: Wow!

Goaltender of the Week

Jason Smith, Sacred Heart

As mentioned below, Smith more than impressed those in tune with the league last weekend by not only earning a sweep of Canisius, but adding a shutout on Friday night. Smith made 54 saves on the weekend. Not bad for a kid who’s been a backup for two years.

Rookie of the Week

Chris Trafford, Mercyhurst

Trafford scored the first game-winning goal of his career on Friday night in a 5-2 win over UConn. He then set up the Lakers’ fourth goal of the game after UConn clawed back within a goal at 3-2. With six points, Trafford leads Mercyhurst rookies in scoring.

Get Out Your Brooms

Maybe it was the Chicago White Sox’s World Series influence, but the first weekend of league play in Atlantic Hockey created a surprising result.

All three weekend series resulted in sweeps favoring the home team, in a year when many felt that league play would balanced not only by the parity in the league but also by the layout of the schedule.

With the drop to eight teams, each club plays every other four times apiece. All weekends, similar to how the WCHA operates, will be two-game series.

Most in sports know that beating the same team back-to-back, particularly on consecutive days, is tough. So the start to the league’s new scheduling arrangement may have caught some by surprise.

“Early in the year, it helps to be the home team,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, giving his feelings on the impact of the new scheduling arrangement. “As you push forward, that isn’t as much a factor. My theory could be wrong but I think things are going to wind up bunched up at the end.”

Pearl says that by the second time that clubs face one another, each will be more prepared, making the sweep all that more difficult.

“God help you in the playoffs,” said Pearl. “It’s going to be the fifth time you match up with them. Who knows what happens then.”

Pearl’s Crusaders were one of three clubs (along with Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart) to pick up two wins last weekend. Holy Cross beat Army 1-0 on Friday and 5-3 on Saturday.

Despite the fact that his club did indeed sweep, Pearl felt both games could’ve gone either way.

“I thought that it was two very well-played games by both teams,” said Pearl “We were fortunate Friday night to score. There weren’t a lot of chances for either team. You’d never dream that a goal in the first period is what lasts. But it did.”

Even in beating Army, Pearl had high praises for the Black Knights’ ability. So far this year, Army remains winless, which according to Pearl is almost shocking.

“There’s no question that [Army] has had a very difficult schedule and that they’re going to be a very good team,” said Pearl. They have defensemen that really move the puck. They spread us out with the way they moved the puck.”

Pearl was pleased with his ability to not only score goals, but do so with balance. After three games, his club has scored nine goals by nine different scorers.

“We’ve got some kids who can finish,” said Pearl. “[Spread-out scoring] is the result of the fact that there weren’t a lot of power plays, so one or two kids weren’t getting all the goals.

“Something that is overlooked at the end of the season is that your leading scorers are on the power play. When you start playing a lot more five-on-five hockey, other lines start to score.”

The reason for the reduced power-play scoring was strong discipline by both teams. That was taken to the extreme on Friday night when Army and Holy Cross combined for a total of just four minor penalties and two power plays each.

“Both of our teams like to hit, but both are two of the least-penalized teams,” said Pearl. “It was a very clean game. There wasn’t a lot of stuff going on [that would warrant penalties] but it wasn’t like there wasn’t a lot of hitting.”

Pearl feels that as officials have cracked down on obstruction fouls for the second straight year, it’s had a major impact on his players and in this case, both teams.

“The goal of the mandate is to get guys not to [clutch and grab],” said Pearl. “We’re coaching in practice not to do that kind of stuff. You find yourself yelling in practice things that two years ago you weren’t yelling.”

This weekend the ‘Cross will face Connecticut, which was swept last weekend by Mercyhurst. Pearl believes that this year’s UConn team is dangerous.

“They’re a real good team,” said Pearl. “They have a whole group of juniors that are really good players. We’ve got to really get it going this weekend.”

Sweep Part II: The ‘Hurst

The second of the three sweeps last weekend came in Erie, where Mercyhurst had an easier time with UConn than might have been expected, winning 5-2 and 5-3. UConn was coming off successful non-league play, while the Lakers had been idle for nearly two weeks.

“I thought we played pretty well,” said Gotkin. “I liked our depth. I thought we came out very hungry getting after the puck. We played at a high tempo.”

The fact that the Lakers scored 10 goals in two games may have some in Erie, including Gotkin, breathing easier. Mercyhurst graduated a significant part of its scoring from a season ago, putting pressure on the younger players to produce.

“I think that we graduated a lot of points but the cupboard was not bare,” said Gotkin. “You know that you’re going to generate some offense, we’re just doing it more by committee this year.

“We know it’s early, but we have balance and we love our depth. If we’re going to be where we want to be, we’re going to have to have a lot of guys contributing.”

The situation that is most interesting, though, for the Lakers remains the battle for the goaltending job among a triumvirate of players: Mike Ella, Tyler Small and Jordan Wakefield. Last weekend, Ella and Small saw time. This weekend, Gotkin will start Ella on Friday and is not sure who, but is leaning towards Wakefield, to bounce back on Saturday.

“We always reserve the right to change our thoughts,” said Gotkin, who said it’s possible he may go with a three-man goaltending rotation all season. “I’m not sure we’re going to have a three-man rotation, but I will say this: we love all three of our goaltenders.

“We’re going to use as many goaltenders as we can. It’s been a great competition to have all three going.”

Sweep Part III: The Jason Smith Show

For two years, Sacred Heart goaltender Jason Smith has sat mostly on the shelf, backing up the talented Kevin Lapointe.

Coming into this season, though, Smith is the man who will make or break this Sacred Heart team, a fact of which he’s well aware.

Last weekend, Smith proved his worth, beating Canisius, 3-0 and 5-3, to complete the triple crown of Atlantic Hockey sweeps.

“It feels good to see him play well,” said head coach Shaun Hannah of Smith. “We were confident coming into the season. We knew we had a good goaltender there.”

The timing of these wins is possibly the point that can be highlighted the most. If Sacred Heart is to have success, the ability by Smith to come out early and play well is critical.

“It’s good for him going into the rest of our schedule,” said Hannah of Smith putting together two weekend wins this early in the season. “Being able to do that back-to-back nights is important.”

Hannah says that from day one, he’s known that Smith was a strong fundamental goaltender. What’s improved has been Smith’s ability to prepare as well as read the game.

“He’s always been a good technical goaltender,” said Hannah. “He’s improved his mental part of the game — his preparation and his maturity.

“He’s really learned the game at this level. It’s more than just stopping pucks. It’s reading opponents coming at you and reading forechecks. He learned a lot watching Kevin Lapointe and that’s helped him this year.”

In addition to Smith, Hannah is happy with the leadership from upperclassmen that his team has received. That leadership has mostly been by example, as juniors and seniors are dominating the scoresheet.

“There’s a junior and two seniors in the scoring, which is real key,” said Hannah of the balance of last weekend’s goal-scorers. “The way we’ve structured our scoring, we have four lines that can score for us. We’re a veteran team so to see [upperclassmen] step up and score goals is a real positive for the team.”