While college kids may be taking finals, it’s time to look at how each Atlantic Hockey team is doing on the ice and hand out our midterm report cards.
The first half of the season has definitely been exciting. We’ve seen some stellar performances both by teams and by individuals.
Mercyhurst, Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Army and Connecticut all have had some brilliant nonleague success, and the league as a whole has put itself in position for a respectable finish in the Commissioners’ cup series.
Individually, one of the biggest stories of the first half was the school-record 35-game scoring streak of Mercyhurst’s Scott Champagne. Snapped last Friday night when Canisius finally held the talented winger at bay, Champagne’s streak was just a few weeks short of stretching for an entire calendar year.
Teammate Jamie Hunt also has stolen headlines as the blueliner leads the nation in points per game (1.80) as well as scoring for a defenseman (27 points). Holy Cross’ Tyler McGregor has been a goal-scoring machine, having buried 11 goals in 12 games for a nation-best 0.92 goals per game.
All of that has contributed to an exciting start to the 2005-06 season and, with the talent gap continuing to close, the New Year should bring exciting matchups as schedules turn more toward league play.
Here, then, is a team-by-team breakdown of the first half:
Current record: 11-6-0 (10-2-0 AH, 1st)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: T-1st
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 1st
Leading Scorer: Scott Champagne, 28 pts. (10g, 18a)
Biggest Surprise: Everyone knew that Mercyhurst, despite losing some talented players to graduation, would still be potent offensively. The Lakers proved that in the first half. The one player, though, who stands out is Hunt. The junior blueliner leads the nation in scoring for a defenseman. With 27 points, he’s already crushed his career-best year (19).
Biggest Disappointment: The fact that the Lakers still aren’t finding a way to win in nonleague play is a bit disappointing. Mercyhurst is 1-4-0 outside of Atlantic Hockey, and this year that included two home games versus Ferris State.
What to Look for in 2006: The Lakers are in position to capture yet another league title. When you look at how successful they’ve been to this point, you also have to remember that they’ve battled injuries to key players who will be back after the Christmas break.
Midterm Grade: A
Current record: 9-3-1 (7-2-1 AH, 2nd)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: T-1st
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 2nd
Leading Scorer: Pierre Napert-Frenette, 18 pts., (7g, 11a)
Biggest Surprise: Holy Cross’ ability to be consistent week in and week out has been the biggest surprise. Save for one bad game against Nebraska-Omaha, the Crusaders have looked solid in just about every position. The fact that they have games in hand on Mercyhurst indicates that they’re poised to make a run at the title. Oh yeah — the fact that the Crusaders will host the league tournament means they’ll have a bit of an edge come playoff time.
Biggest Disappointment: Is it too much of a stretch to say that things really are going as planned in Worcester, and that there’s little that’s disappointing? The power play is solid, the penalty kill is solid, the team is scoring goals (third in the league) and keeping the puck out of its net (top defense in the league). Maybe I’m crazy, but this team is living up to expectations.
What to Look for in 2006: If Holy Cross produces the same consistency it has in the first half, expect the Crusaders to possibly overtake Mercyhurst for the league title. There a very few holes in this team. It may just be one of the best products this league has ever turned out.
Midterm Grade: A
Current record: 8-6-1 (6-5-1 AH, 3rd)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 3rd
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 4th
Leading Scorer: Pierre-Luc O’Brien, 22 pts. (8g, 14a)
Biggest Surprise: Rookie Bear Trapp has become the third rookie in as many years (joining Alexandre Parent and Pierre-Luc O’Brien) to make an immediate impact on Sacred Heart’s scoring. Trapp is second on the team (behind O’Brien and tied with Parent) in scoring with 18 points. More impressive, he’s scored four game-winning goals, proving that his timeliness in finding the net is paramount.
Biggest Disappointment: The Pioneers seem to be struggling with consistency thus far. After winning six out of seven, the only loss coming on the road at Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart dropped its final three games before the break, one to seventh-place Army and two to now-fourth-place Connecticut.
What to Look for in 2006: Sacred Heart has the toolbox to be a top team in Atlantic Hockey, but must show up for every game, regardless of the opponent. I’d expect the Pioneers to lock up a home-ice spot and possibly challenge for their second championship-game appearance in three years.
Midterm Grade: B
Current record: 6-7-1 (5-6-0 AH, T-4th)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 5th
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 5th
Leading Scorer: Chris Myhro, 14 pts. (8g, 6a)
Biggest Surprise: There’s no doubt that the much-improved play from sophomore goaltender Brad Smith is the biggest shocker in Storrs. Smith, who was pressed into duty early last season when starter Scott Tomes went down, struggled with a tough schedule a season ago. This year, his numbers speak for themselves (3-1-1 record in six appearances, 2.25 goals against average, and .926 save percentage), and three wins before the break will give him plenty of confidence heading into 2006.
Biggest Disappointment: As good as Smith has been, the play of goaltending partner Tomes hasn’t lived up to expectations. Billed as having the inside track on being the number-one goaltender heading into the season, Tomes was given three chances to shine and went winless in all three. His goals against average borders on four goals per game and his save percentage has dropped below .900.
What to Look for in 2006: If UConn’s offense can provide some timely goals and support to the defense, UConn should hold onto fourth place and home ice. The Huskies have three or four talented forwards who can put the puck in the net; the question is whether they can get some additional production from the bottom two lines.
Midterm Grade: A-
Current record: 6-7-2 (4-3-2 AH, T-4th)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 6th
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 7th
Leading Scorer: Anthony Canzoneri, 15 pts. (5g, 10a)
Biggest Surprise: Rookie Anthony Canzoneri has provided the infusion of offense that this Bentley team needed. His 15 points lead the team. The fact that other freshmen, as well, are chipping in shows that Bentley is winning recruiting battles. Jeff Gumaer and Dain Prewitt rank second and fourth, respectively, in team scoring.
Biggest Disappointment: Head coach Ryan Soderquist hoped to see offensive production from Brendan McCartin when he moved the talented forward back to defense. In 15 games, though, McCartin has scored just two goals and seven points total. At the same time, he hasn’t had the impact quarterbacking the power play that Soderquist hoped.
What to Look for in 2006: If there’s one area that Bentley will need to improve to have success, it’s discipline. I mean that in every sense of the word. Obviously, the discipline to play within the system is critical, but more importantly the discipline to stay out of the penalty box goes one step further. The Falcons are the league’s most-penalized team with the worst penalty kill — a recipe for disaster.
Midterm Grade: B
Current record: 5-10-1 (3-8-1 AH, 6th)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 4th
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 3rd
Leading Scorer: Michael Cohen, 15 pts. (5g, 10a), Joel Kitchen, 15 pts. (5g, 10a)
Biggest Surprise: Defenseman Brandon Irish-Baker has become an offensive machine for the Griffs. In his final season on the Canisius blue line, Irish-Baker has already scored more points this year than in his first three seasons combined. For a team that, at times, has struggled scoring goals, any offensive contributions from the defensemen are important.
Biggest Disappointment: I know we’re all sick of hearing about it, but the continued discipline problems at Canisius are very disappointing to me. Whether last week’s dismissals were a housecleaning or not, to think that after all this team went through last year that players still could get into trouble is beyond belief.
What to Look for in 2006: Canisius needs to step things up in the second half if they’re going to make a run at home ice. There are talented players on this team, but there are also question marks. The club’s best statistical goaltender is gone, so either Max Buetow or Dan Giffin are will need to improve between the pipes. This team proved last weekend that it can compete with two close games against a tough Mercyhurst team, but the difference between competing and winning is a fine line.
Midterm Grade: C-
Current record: 4-9-3 (2-5-3 AH, 7th)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 7th
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 6th
Leading Scorer: Luke Flicek, 12 pts. (4g, 8a)
Biggest Surprise: Sophomores Luke Flicek and Bryce Hollweg have made a major impact on the Army offense. Both have already surpassed their scoring totals from their rookie campaigns and proven that they can be effective at the college level. Add to the fact that rookie Tim Manthey ranks third in points behind Flicek and Hollweg, you can see the youth movement beginning to take effect in West Point.
Biggest Disappointment: Army’s slow start put the team behind the eight-ball early. The fact that the team is 4-2-2 in its last eight is a positive sign, but you have to hope that the early struggles don’t put Army, which every coach in the league says is a very talented team, on the path of a very uphill battle.
What to Look for in 2006: The first half for Army can be split into two more halves: a 0-8-0 start and a 4-2-2 finish. The question is which Army team will come to play after Christmas? You’d have to expect that the team that put up the 4-2-2 record has rid itself of the cobwebs that caused the slow start. If so, look for Army to be a tough opponent down the stretch.
Midterm Grade: C+
Current record: 1-10-2 (1-7-2 AH, 8th)
Coaches’ Preseason Pick: 8th
Connelly’s Preseason Pick: 8th
Leading Scorer: Jereme Tendler, 10 pts. (5g, 5a)
Biggest Surprise: Goaltender Tom Fenton proved in the past month that he’s capable of being successful in Division I. In six of his last seven starts, he’s held the opposition to two goals or less and averaged close to 33 saves per game in that span.
Biggest Disappointment: AIC simply has not produced offensively. While shutting teams down was an issue early in the year, six out of the last seven games has seen the Yellow Jacket defense hold opponents to two goals or less but only amass a 1-3-2 record in that span. There is a need for huge improvement offensively, since otherwise it doesn’t matter how your defense and goaltending play.
What to Look for in 2006: As mentioned above, AIC simply needs to score goals. Whether it’s on the power play or at even strength, this club can’t continue to score two goals a game and hope to win. Fenton’s play in the last two weeks, though, makes AIC a scary opponent.
Midterm Grade: D+
This is the final column before the holidays, so let me take this opportunity to wish all of my loyal readers the happiest and safest of holiday seasons. After the New Year, we’ll return with a recap of the holiday tournaments and continuous coverage as Atlantic Hockey looks to crown its champion.