This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 10, 2005

Clash of the Titans, Part I

It may only be November, but it’s highly likely that the attention of many in Atlantic Hockey will be focused on Worcester this weekend as the league’s preseason favorites, Mercyhurst and Holy Cross, lock horns for the first time this year.

It’s a series that everyone involved would like to downplay. Truth is, though, these are two games that can define how seasons can go. True, championships can not be won this Friday and Saturday, but mentally, it’s possible for a championship to be lost.

When asked if these games have a little more meaning than others, Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl’s answer was simple.

“No,” said Pearl. “After halfway through the year when you see what the standings are you can figure out who is where, then games like these become more important.

“[Mercyhurst is] obviously a good team and I enjoy coaching against them. But it would dangerous for either club to make this a bigger deal than it is. Especially pre-Christmas, all you’re talking about is all the points you can get.”

Counterpart Rick Gotkin tried to downplay things as well, but admitted that, in a way, this series brings with it some meaning.

“I think it’s big because it’s Mercyhurst and Holy Cross and the coaches picked these two teams preseason; that makes it a great series,” said Gotkin, whose team had begun the league season 4-0-0, its best record since 1999-2000, when the Lakers started the year 6-0-0 in league play and 8-0-1 overall. “I think, as good as we are offensively, we’re going to have to be good defensively. We’ll have to find ways to generate some offense and finish our chances if we get them.”

Gotkin’s team, to date, has finished its chances. The Lakers are averaging a nation-best 5.17 goals per game, thanks in part to what Gotkin calls “a few tweaks.

“We’ve tried to free some guys up to open things offensively,” said Gotkin. “We’ve changed our forecheck and we like what we see. We’ve also changed our regroup in our neutral zone, and so far it’s been pretty successful for us.”

Defensively, the Lakers have been solid, despite having what some might consider a strange trio in net, with three goaltenders all currently playing the role of alternating number-one goalies. This weekend, little will change. Once again, Mike Ella will get the start on Friday night. Who plays Saturday will be a decision made by the coaching staff after Friday’s game. Thus far, this unorthodox system has worked well for the Lakers.

“It’s been a good situation,” said Gotkin. “The guys have been great with it. All three guys have worked very hard in practice and have pulled for each other.”

The experience of Holy Cross’ goaltending duo of Tony Quesada and Ben Conway is what Pearl hopes can slow the Lakers’ offensive attack.

“They’re up-and-down affairs, where goalies have to play well,” said Pearl of the importance of goaltending. To this point, Holy Cross’ goaltenders have surrendered just 1.80 goals per game, tied for sixth-best in the nation.

As for downplaying the series, the truth is that neither team would like to be swept. The ability of either team to overcome losing both games is there, but the mental toughness can often be hard to muster. That’s particularly true for Holy Cross, a team that started the season strong but with two losses this weekend would be on a three-game league losing streak. Though the Crusaders are filled with talent, it can be difficult to remain mentally tough through a losing streak.

All that said, expect some of the best hockey this weekend to be played in Worcester. If you don’t get a chance to see these games live, worry not. There’s a good chance these two teams will match up many more times this season, potentially in the league championship come March.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Ryan Toomey, Mercyhurst: If there’s anyone out there who has a fantasy college hockey team, let’s hope that you picked up Toomey as a late-round steal. His eight points last weekend would put any fantasy owner at the top of the pack. Ironically, Toomey was held scoreless for the season up until last weekend.

Goaltender of the Week

Max Buetow, Canisius: It had been nearly 19 months since Max Buetow recorded a win for Canisius. As last weekend, he decided to shock everyone and not only pick up his first win since February 2004, but add a tie for good measure as the Griffs took three of four points on the weekend from Army.

Rookie of the Week

Jason Kearney, Bentley: A 33-save performance against Sacred Heart in a 1-1 last Friday was enough to earn Kearney rookie of the week honors. Though still winless on the season, Kearney has posted an impressive .907 save percentage.

Welcome Back, Buetow

It had been a long time since goaltender Max Buetow stood in the Canisius crease during the singing of the national anthem. Buetow, who backed up Bryan Worosz for his first two years at Canisius, had not started a game for the Griffs since December 18, 2004, a 4-1 loss at North Dakota.

As long as that may seem, it’s been even longer since Buetow has been on the winning end of things for Canisius. Buetow, a junior, earned his last in his freshman year, a 6-3 win over American International on February 28, 2004.

Last weekend, Buetow put both of those streaks to rest. Not only did he start twice, but he earned a win and a tie against Army, surrendering just three goals all weekend. His 17 saves on Friday were enough for a 2-1 overtime victory. Saturday, Buetow added 23 more saves, including five in overtime, to earn a 2-2 tie.

Definitely something that earns a tip of the cap.

Rebounding Falcons

The rollercoaster that has been the Bentley season took an upward swing last week when the club took three of four points against red-hot Sacred Heart.

It was much-needed for the Falcons, who had lost three in a row and four of five entering the weekend, allowing 24 goals in the five-game span.

If you’re looking for a reason for the turnaround, you might point to two areas: penalty killing and goaltending. Bentley’s penalty-kill unit had been atrocious, but last weekend killed 10 of 12 power plays for Sacred Heart.

“I thought that our penalty-killing unit did well, but more importantly than that we stayed out of the box,” said Soderquist. “We had only seven penalties on Friday and six on Saturday, which is pretty low with the penalties being called right now in college hockey.”

At the same time, the Falcons didn’t allow a single five-on-five goal to the Pioneers, and that’s thanks in part to the solid play of goaltenders Jason Kearney and Geordan Murphy (making his first start of the season in net).

When asked about giving Murphy his first start, Soderquist’s explanation was simple.

“He’s earned it,” Soderquist said. “He worked hard over the summer and in the first month we knew he’d give Ray Jean and Kearney competition. He worked hard in practice and deserved a start.”

Murphy delivered with a 25-save performance, 15 coming in the third period, to earn the win.

With Murphy’s play, Soderquist now will have to take a page out of the book of Gotkin and try to balance three goaltenders.

“We’ve been pretty pleased with the performances of all three goaltenders. It’s kind of a three-way battle right now,” said Soderquist. “It’s extremely hard to make the decision and it’s even harder when the three guys play well. I hope that one or two emerge and continue to have success.

“Approaching this weekend is still day-by-day. It’s Thursday and we’re still making the decision on who will get the start tomorrow night. Both goalies last weekend played well and deserve another shot, and Ray Jean has two big wins for us as well and deserves another start. It’s competitive, which isn’t a bad thing.”

If there’s one place where Bentley may need to improve, it’s in the scoring department. Soderquist said he can write off last weekend to playing a tough Sacred Heart team that doesn’t allow a lot of quality chances. But going forward, the lack of production needs to change.

“We talked about it today with the staff,” said Soderquist. “We’re not overly concerned from last weekend, but this weekend and next we need to have some point production.”

Veteran’s Day at West Point

If anyone is looking for a way to celebrate Veteran’s Day, you might consider a trip to West Point to watch Army battle rival Air Force. This is a fitting tribute to have the military academies do battle on the ice as the nation pays tribute to the many men and women of the Armed Forces who risk their life every day for our freedom.

Alumni in Cleveland

Be careful if you’re in Cleveland anytime soon. If you were to pick up the local sports section, you may think that Atlantic Hockey is moving its operations to Drew Carey’s hometown.

American Hockey League rosters aren’t exactly flooded with players from Atlantic Hockey. So the fact that the Cleveland Barons, the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks, currently have two players from Atlantic Hockey should be stunning enough.

The fact that both of these players are currently among the team’s statistical leaders takes things a step further.

Alums Pat Rissmiller (Holy Cross) and Jamie Holden (Quinnipiac) are Cleveland’s current one-two punch. Rissmiller leads the team in goals with five, which Holden, recently recalled from the East Coast Hockey League, is on fire in net for the Barons.

This past Monday, Holden was named the CCM Vector/AHL Player of the Week after going 3-0-0 the week prior for his three AHL wins. Over the span, Holden saw plenty of rubber, stopping 100 of 105 shots.

Rissmiller, the only Atlantic Hockey alum to play in the National Hockey League, has 10 points overall, tied for the team lead in points, and has buried five goals.

Cleveland is now 5-6-0 on the young season, but riding a three-game winning streak heading into Hamilton this Friday night.