This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Nov. 24, 2005

Time to Give Thanks

For eight years I have been writing this column for, and over that time there have been few traditions that I’ve developed.

One, though, has to do with Thanksgiving. Each year, my column published on Thanksgiving day takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look around the world of Atlantic Hockey, traveling through the depths of the league to eavesdrop, if you will, on the various coaches and their teams. We’ll look at each team’s Thanksgiving dinner to see exactly what those folks, at this time of year, have for which to give thanks.

We’ll actually begin outside the depths of the league this year and travel to upstate New York. No, we’re not hitting Buffalo just yet. Instead, we’ll look in Albany, where Holy Cross is spending its Thanksgiving. The Crusaders will be one of the few teams to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner as a team, playing in the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament beginning on Friday. Thus, the Purple and White will all gather together with plenty for which to give thanks.

They’ll start with Tyler McGregor. The senior captain of the Crusaders is off to a career season. McGregor has 14 points already this young season, and has scored seven goals in the last four games alone. Add to that the goaltending tandem of Tony Quesada and Ben Conway, a duo spending its fourth and final Thanksgiving together. Head coach Paul Pearl has to be plenty thankful to have gotten four great years from two great goalies.

From Holy Cross, we’ll move west to Erie, Penn., where it wouldn’t be surprising if Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin were making a “champagne” toast this Thanksgiving eve. This past Thursday, senior Scott Champagne extended one of the most impressive scoring streaks in school history. Champagne has scored in 30 straight games for the Lakers, an impressive feat to say the least. In addition to Champagne, Gotkin must be thankful that he’s been able to handle a three-man goaltending rotation to this point in the season. It’s been a strange situation for the Lakers as all three goaltenders — Mike Ella, Jordan Wakefield and Tyler Small — have proven their ability to play. The question is, how long can the triumvirate last?

If Gotkin and Pearl were to get together, you might seem them both giving thanks for the fact that perennial powerhouse Quinnipiac departed the league after last season for the ECACHL. It now seems as it will be up to the Lakers and Crusaders (and probably the Sacred Heart Pioneers) to duke it out for the league championship year in and year out.

And speaking of Sacred Heart, head coach Shaun Hannah is giving thanks this Thanksgiving day for the play of goaltender Jason Smith. Smith, an NHL draft choice, sat on the Sacred Heart bench for two years backing up reliable Kevin Lapointe. Given the chance to play night in and night out, Smith has proven that he’s ready to handle the duties, having posted a a 5-3-1 record with an impressive 2.27 goals against average and .921 save percentage. If there was any concern that this kid could succeed at this level has quickly been erased.

Staying in Connecticut, the state’s other Atlantic Hockey entry, UConn, has proven thus far to be a bit more competitive than many would have given credit. Much of that has been the team’s ability to replace the offense lost by last year’s leading scorer, Tim Olsen. Last year, Olsen scored 36 points while no other Husky player registered more than 25.

Already this year two Huskies have cracked the double-digit mark for points in Cole Koidahl (12 points) and rookie Chris Myrho (10). At the same time, head coach Bruce Marshall is giving thanks for the play of rookie Jon Anderson in net. In four starts, Anderson is 3-1-0 with .914 save percentage and a decent 2.94 goals against average.

Up the road in western Massachusetts, head coach Gary Wright has suffered through a tough start to the 2005-06 campaign but, thanks to an impressive performance for his club last weekend against Holy Cross, can give thanks for getting his team’s first league points.

Forgive Wright, though, if one point from last weekend’s effort is a bit upsetting. The Yellow Jackets held the powerhouse Crusader offense to just three goals. But thanks to a late goal in Friday’s game that even the score at one (with just three seconds remaining) and a solid performance in net by Holy Cross’ Conway on Saturday, AIC escaped the weekend with just a tie to show. All that said, the performance of goaltender Tom Fenton in goal (stopping 67 of 70 shots) show some signs of hope for this struggling Yellow Jackets team.

Another team that has struggled in league play is Army. Second-year head coach Brian Riley, though, still is giving plenty of thanks this holiday season. For one, his club was able to sweep rival Air Force in a fitting Veteran’s Day salute. At the same time Riley holds his head up each day, speaking with pride of current Army players and those who have gone before them who defend this country. It’s obvious with Riley that turning out top-notch soldiers is more important than producing NHL players, something quite commendable indeed. All that said, you may see Riley asking Santa Claus for some wins very soon!

In Waltham, Mass., at Bentley, head coach Ryan Soderquist is giving thanks for many things, not the least of which is how his team has performed in league play so far. A 3-1-2 record has the Falcons in fourth place, ready to creep up on the league’s top three of Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross.

Much of this early success has to do with the play of Bentley’s goaltenders. Much like Mercyhurst, Bentley has yet to find one or even two goaltenders who will carry the Falcons this year and is relying on a trio of duffelbags, all of whom have a save percentage of .900 or higher, to lead the club.

Lastly on the coaching front we’ll look in on rookie benchman Dave Smith. Smith, in his first season at Canisius, has to be thankful simply for righting the ship. One year after Canisius players were making headlines for discipline problems, Smith seems to have the program back on track both on and off the ice.

The Griffs have played just about at the level of expectations, particularly given the fact they lost one of the league’s best goaltenders in Bryan Worosz. Still, a 5-6-1 record heading into the last week of December is not too shabby, and given Smith’s experience as an assistant coach at Mercyhurst, come postseason look for this club to be downright scary.

Finally, we check in on Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio. With his league running like a finely-tuned machine (heck, Atlantic Hockey is tied for first place in the Commissioners’ Cup standings), DeGregorio can be very thankful indeed. The fact that next year the league will expand to 10 teams cements the fact that this league is around for the long haul. Now if only College Hockey America can find a sixth team for next season, all the dirty looks at the commissioners’ meetings might cease.

Thanksgiving is indeed a fine time for everyone to stop and reflect, and I hope you’ve gotten a few laughs and maybe even some insight into Atlantic Hockey. Next thing you know, Christmas will be past and we’ll be talking playoffs. There’s plenty of hockey still to play, though, so sit back and enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!