This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Dec. 8, 2005

365 Days of Hell

When Saturday arrives, those who follow Canisius hockey may want to light a candle, do some sort of chant. Anything that might move the black cloud from over the school’s head.

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the firing of coach Brian Cavanaugh. Since that day, the Griffs program has been riddled with problems, most of which seemed to disappear only to rear their ugly heads against last week.

Friday the team announced that four players had been dismissed for undisclosed reasons. Brothers Mike and Matt Ruberto, defenseman Craig Nooyen and goaltender Ryan Hatch all were removed from the club, making many once again ask, “What’s going on at Canisius?”

Newly-hired head coach Dave Smith arrived in Buffalo with a good reputation, having served on the staffs of multiple programs, most recently at Mercyhurst. From day one, Smith said that he hoped to bring pride back to the team and, even after last Friday’s dismissal, maintains that his team is a good bunch of kids but tough decisions had to be made for the good of the program.

“As a staff, our athletic director, our assistant athletic director and our sports supervisor were all consulted at length on this,” said Smith by phone on Monday. “It wasn’t a decision I made alone. The magnitude of the decision was talked about with numerous people.

The school cited a confidentiality law that prohibits discussing the nature of the problem with the public, more specifically the media. Because of that, though, many will be led to speculate about what happened. You’ll never know if these players were constant troublemakers or had a one-time problem. Were they a cancer to the club, or just being made an example of in the school’s hopes to tighten the reins on discipline?

Unlike the school’s past problems, this one has garnered little in the way of media attention. It’s likely that we’ll never actually know what happened.

What we do know, though, is that things still aren’t kosher in Buffalo. It’s my opinion that with Smith at the helm, this program is headed in the right direction. But it’s obvious now that it’s not going to be smooth sailing.

For the sake of the team, the coaches and the players, let’s hope this is it. Let’s cross our fingers that the only time Canisius makes headlines henceforth is for big victories on the ice. It’s in the interests of all concerned that the Griffs begin to succeed in building a program that makes the school proud.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Dave Borelli, Mercyhurst: Borelli had your average, run-of-the-mill seven-point series against Bentley last weekend, which was just enough to earn him player of the week honors. Seriously, though, Borelli was an offensive monster with five goals and two assists and registering his first career hat trick. Not too shabby, I must say.

Goaltender of the Week

Jason Smith, Sacred Heart: Sacred Heart has had a bit of trouble in non-league play recently. So when a goaltender makes 44 saves and upsets Rensselaer in overtime, he deserves some recognition. Add to that the fact that he also posted a 16-save victory earlier in the week against Army and he becomes a lock.

Rookie of the Week

Tom Fenton, American International: It may have seemed like an eternity, but AIC and rookie goaltender Tom Fenton both picked up win number one of the season last Friday, a 5-2 victory over UConn. Fenton made 29 saves in Friday’s win and then added 31 a night later in a 2-1 loss.

More Scoring than a Frat Party

Everyone knows that Mercyhurst can score goals, but just in case you doubted that the Lakers sent a message last weekend in a two-game series against Bentley.

Mercyhurst exploded for 17 goals in the two-game series and routed the Falcons, 7-4 and 10-5, its most offensive weekend in nearly five years.

For head coach Rick Gotkin, the explosion was inexplicable.

“It’s streaky stuff, goalscoring,” said Gotkin, whose Lakers had 10 power-play goals on the weekend, five each night. “We have the offensive firepower, but last weekend was just one of those things.

“Saturday we came out just buzzing. Next thing you know we’re up by three or four and it was a long way back for [Bentley].

“It was a weird game. We were up 6-1 but they outshot us, 50-33.”

The ringleader for the ‘Hurst was Dave Borelli, who scored five goals by himself and added two assists — all coming just one week since Borelli returned to the lineup after nursing a shoulder injury.

“He’s a guy we need to continuously produce for us,” said Gotkin of Borelli, who had his first career hat trick on Saturday night. “We’re counting on big things from him.”

Also producing big was another returnee to the Laker lineup, defenseman Jamie Hunt. Hunt, who missed action a week earlier with a pulled groin, registered six assists on the weekend to pull him within a point of team leader Scott Champagne.

“He’s been skating well,” said Gotkin of Hunt, the quarterback on the Mercyhurst power play. “He’s a strong skater. He gets up and down the ice quick. Now he’s playing with lots of confidence and making stuff happen.

Scoring for Mercyhurst, of course, wouldn’t be complete without Champagne registering points of his own. The junior potted two assists on Friday and a goal and an assist on Saturday to extend his school-best 34-game scoring streak.

He’ll look to extend that streak this weekend against Canisius. The Lakers and Griffs will play the first of two home-and-home series this weekend in a matchup that reunites Gotkin with — or against, that is — former assistant and current Canisius head coach Dave Smith.

Though there will be some excitement not only for Smith’s return to Erie but also to have the league’s two “western” rivals squaring off, Gotkin, as he often does, tried to downplay it.

“For me, my 18th year here, it feels just like any other game,” Gotkin said. “I love Dave Smith and I know he’s doing and will continue to do a great job at Canisius. But it’s just another game. We have to find a way to get two points.”

Asked if there was anything that Gotkin would have to change because Smith has such inside knowledge of the Mercyhurst program, Gotkin laughed.

“I don’t even know what we would change.”

Seen and Heard Around the League…

• Santa Claus came early to American International in the form of the club’s first win of the season. AIC rolled past UConn on the road on Friday night and nearly made it two in a row, losing 2-1, in Saturday night’s rematch. It was the first road win for AIC since January 28, 2005.

• Army has been holding the opposition off the scoreboard of late. The Black Knights have two wins in their last three games (over UConn and Sacred Heart), by identical 2-1 scores.

• With two wins on the road against beleaguered Canisius, Holy Cross is off to its best start since moving to Division I in 1998. The Crusaders are 9-3-1 and just a point behind first-place Mercyhurst. In 2003-04, Holy Cross began the year 8-3-1 and went on to win the Atlantic Hockey tournament, making the school’s only appearance in the NCAA tournament.

• You’d think in college hockey that four goals would be enough to win you a game. That is, unless you’re Bentley. The Falcons buried four goals on Friday night against Mercyhurst and another five on Saturday night, but dropped both games handily, 7-4 (though Mercyhurst did score two empty-net goals) and 10-5. It was the first time since the 1999-2000 season that the Falcons scored four goals in back-to-back games and lost both.

• File under “referees with tired arms”: Mercyhurst and Bentley combined for 168 penalty minutes in last weekend’s two-game set. Bentley, which as mentioned earlier, surrendered 10 power-play goals on the weekend, took the brunt of it — 104 minutes’ worth.