This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 5, 2006

Center Stage

Atlantic Hockey takes center stage this weekend as defending tournament champion Mercyhurst travels to Army for a pair of games, the first of which will be broadcast nationally on CSTV.

Friday’s game marks the first time that an Atlantic Hockey league game will be broadcast on CSTV. Army has, in the past, had non-league games on the network as the Game of the Week.

According to Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, this represents a big step for his program and the league.

“It’s a great thing how it can impact recruiting and spread the gospel,” said Gotkin. “From our standpoint it’s amazing. We saw how many people saw us play Boston College on the ESPN game [in last year’s NCAA regional], so it’s amazing how much exposure these games get.”

Gotkin says that given the exposure, there pressure on both teams to play well and take advantage of the captive audience.

“We’d be amazed at how many people will see their first Atlantic Hockey league game,” Gotkin said. “Army and Mercyhurst have a chance to show people what Atlantic Hockey is all about.”

As for the game itself, it may look like a bit of a mismatch on paper. The Lakers have a five-point lead on first place, which Army is struggling to stay out of the league cellar. That, though, doesn’t represent the headaches that the Black Knights have given Mercyhurst in recent years.

Since Army became a member of Mercyhurst’s conference in 2000, the Lakers hold what appears to be a lopsided 12-2-0 mark in regular-season games. A closer look, though, shows seven of those 14 games were decided by two goals or fewer, and Gotkin readily admits that Army is a team that just seems to give Mercyhurst fits.

“They have given us everything that we can handle. All our games with Army have been great games,” said Gotkin. “You always know what you get with Army. They’re very disciplined and they work harder than anybody that we see. They’re very physical.

“Over the past few years they’ve been able to make some plays. They’re a team whose record does not show how good they are.”

Army has a slight advantage entering the weekend as, unlike Mercyhurst, it’s not coming off of a long break. Army played last week at the UConn Holiday Classic while the Lakers haven’t played an actual game since December 10, 2005.

“You always worry about cobwebs, but the break for us has been a good thing,” said Gotkin. “We got back into it a week ago and our guys look very focused. They’re anxious to get league play going again.”

Expect from this series what most have come to hope for from most Atlantic Hockey games: a tight-checking, physical game. This one just happens to be a game that the country will be watching.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart: When Sacred Heart shocked Brown two weeks ago at the Providence Holiday Classic, O’Brien played a major role. His four-point night, scoring two goals and two assists, was the catalyst to the 5-1 victory. O’Brien was named to the all-tournament team in recognition.

Goaltender of the Week

Ben Conway, Holy Cross: Though Conway only made one appearance at the Ohio Hockey Classic, he made it count with a 39-save performance in a 4-2 upset of Rensselaer. The win pushes his record to a noteworthy 4-1-0 on the season.

Rookie of the Week

Bear Trapp, Sacred Heart: Trapp wasn’t going to let linemate Pierre-Luc O’Brien show him up. In Sacred Heart’s 5-1 over Brown, Trapp matched O’Brien’s four points with four assists of his own.

Canisius: One Year Later

It was my plan early in December to write something on Canisius’ progress under coach Dave Smith. Though Smith has only been on the Buffalo campus since the summer, it’s been one year since head coach Brian Cavanaugh was dismissed midseason.

At that time, though, we all know by now there were some further discipline problems that took the attention of most, myself included, from what’s happening on the ice to what was happening off.

In fairness to the school, the program and Smith, it’s what’s happening on the ice that really should make news. Though the team’s record isn’t spectacular, sitting at 5-12-1 overall and 3-8-1 in league play, good for a sixth-place tie, Smith feels his team has made some progress from the day he arrived on campus.

“I like how we’ve been playing,” said Smith. “We just have not yet been rewarded with wins and points. We’ve been able to stay in games. But where we are now, we know each other. The first half was getting to know each other and figure out where to fit.”

Smith readily admits that the players have had an extra burden this season of getting used to him and his styles. There’s been a major adjustment in expectations and, as the second half rolls around, Smith seems optimistic that the teams will settle into the Smith system better.

“They haven’t yet put their heads down,” said Smith of his players’ positive attitude. “Our focus has been great. Our practices have been very focused and they’re keen on doing what they have to do to improve. It hasn’t been an easy year with a new coaching staff and trying to create a new identity.”

Smith is quick to credit a handful of players for helping make the transition smoother. Senior defensemen Tim Songin and Brandon Irish-Baker had helped to guide a very young and inexperienced defensive corps. Captain Fred Coccimiglio (“an extension of our coaching staff,” says Smith) has been an unsung hero in the locker room. And offensively, Michael Cohen and Joel Kitchen continue to pace the Griffs’ attack.

What’s probably still missing — and it garnered a frustrated chuckle from Smith when addressed — is stability in goal. After Ryan Hatch was dismissed in early December, the team was left with the pair of Dan Giffin and Max Buetow. Though both have looked good at times, according to Smith, the consistency in performance is truly what is missing.

“I think that as of yet we haven’t connected on the same night where we get good goaltending and scoring,” said Smith. “The areas that we identified to be better in the second half is special teams and team defense. Part of team defense is goaltending and we have to get better in that area.”

Puck luck has also been a bit of an issue for the Griffs. A good example came in the recent Dodge Holiday Classic in Minnesota. Smith felt his club outplayed Massachusetts-Lowell in the tournament semifinal but couldn’t hold onto a lead, falling 5-4. A night later, though shut out, 2-0, by Union, Canisius hit a post on a 2-on-1 early when the game was still scoreless.

“Maybe as we get better we’ll win some games in the future that we don’t deserve to win,” jokes Smith when talking about retribution. “Right now, though, we’re having to work awful hard for anything that we get.”

Parting Shots

• While much of the focus this weekend may be on the nationally-televised Army-Mercyhurst game, the series with the most important standings implications will be contested between Sacred Heart and Holy Cross. The two will square off in a home-and-home, beginning in Connecticut on Friday night. Though Holy Cross has three games in hand on the Pioneers, the two teams are deadlocked points-wise in the standings, further emphasizing the importance of this two-game set.

• Atlantic Hockey has all but sealed its fate in the Commissioners’ Cup series. The league fell to fourth over the holidays in the Cup standings after both the CCHA and College Hockey America passed it. My math says that there’s still an outside chance that Atlantic Hockey could wind up in a four-way tie for first if UConn can beat Yale in its final Cup contest and Wayne State and Northern Michigan each tie. I wonder what the tiebreaker is should that happen? On second thought, I really don’t care.

• With all the attention paid to Sacred Heart rookie Bear Trapp, it’s easy for Connecticut freshman Chris Myrho to get lost in the shuffle of top players. That may just be how Myrho prefers things, as the rookie from Mound West Tonka, Minn., leads UConn in scoring with 15 points.

Gridiron Chat

I know this column is supposed to be about college hockey, but a week of late nights watching bowl games has my brain a bit fried and I’m finding it hard to get Wednesday night’s Rose Bowl out of my head.

With many Atlantic Hockey schools based in New England, Patriots fans who may be reading will know what I’m talking about when I say that Pete Carroll, though the ultimate nice guy and still a decent coach, doesn’t know how to manage a football game.

More than any sport, football needs a coach that can make the right play calls at the right time, do things to eat clock when you’re ahead and conserve it when you’re behind.

Last night, USC coach Carroll did none of these things.

The most crucial moment in the game came with a little more than two minutes left and USC leading by 5. With USC in a fourth-and-two situation at midfield, Carroll was forced to either go for the first down, which likely would’ve sealed the victory, or punt the ball away and make Texas go, most likely, 80 yards to score a touchdown.

Personally, I think this is a 50/50 decision. I can see why the Trojans would want to simply seal the deal, particularly seeing as the USC defense had very little success trying to stop the Texas offense in the second half. Going for it is probably a little risky in the mind of the average football pundit.

Whatever the decision is, though, the mistake that was made is leaving Reggie Bush, arguably the best player that’s played the college game in a decade, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the likely number-one pick in this year’s NFL draft, on the bench for the most critical offensive play of the season.

Sure, there were other problems, including burning the team’s last timeout after Texas scored because USC couldn’t get the right personnel on the field for the extra point, but the blunder with two minutes remaining cost the Trojans a perfect season and a third-straight national title.

Don’t even ask my why this whole thing fired me up so much. I’m not really a college football fan and I didn’t have thousands of dollars riding on the game. Who knows, maybe there’s some secret part of me that still can’t stand Pete Carroll (yes, I know the Pats have become a dynasty since then).

Whatever it is, at least it made for some exciting TV.