This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 26, 2006

Home Sweet Home (Ice)

Generally, as the season winds down, talk on most media space, this included, swings towards the battle for the regular-season championship.

Indeed, I could fill a thousand words talking about how evenly-matched Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross are. To me, though, that’s become a broken record. Save Quinnipiac, those four schools have hovered around the top of the league since the inception of the MAAC in 1998.

But the absence of the Bobcats creates a new storyline this season, as the battle for the final home-ice playoff spot (a.k.a., fourth place) is as intense as any first-place race could be.

Currently, Army holds a one-point lead over Bentley for fourth in Atlantic Hockey. Connecticut is five points off Army’s pace and like Army has played 18 games. Bentley has the upper hand in the fact it has played only 15 games.

So when you look at this week’s schedule, as much as the two-game set between Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart might stand out, the games that see to carry even more weight will take place at West Point between Army and Bentley.

Though Bentley took three of four points the first time these two teams met, Army is now one of the hottest teams in the league. In fact, since the series against Bentley, the Black Knights are 7-5-1.

“It seems like when you win games you don’t have a chance to look at what you did in the recent past,” said Army head coach Brian Riley, who noted earlier in the season when his club was 0-7-0 that the team’s record was about the only thing on his mind.

But the recent success and ascent through the standings have put Army in a unusual position — fighting for home ice.

For Army, and for Bentley was well, home ice in a single-elimination playoffs seems like a major advantage. Add in the fact that both Army and Bentley have been red-hot at home (and lukewarm at best on he road), for these two teams staying home might mean a lot toward advancing come playoff time.

“Every team would tell you that they’d much rather play at home,” said Riley, whose club has hosted playoff games before, but only of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 play-in variety. “The fact of the matter is that come playoff time, if you have to go on the road it’s not something you turn into a negative. So we don’t think about it too much.”

For Bentley, a team that head coach Ryan Soderquist admits may have gotten a bit overconfident lately, home ice has turned into a comfort zone after years of being taboo.

“We’ve been playing well at home,” Soderquist said of his club that is 6-3-1 at home this season. “With a team of nine seniors, sometimes you get a little more comfortable when you play at home. I think in the past they might have been a little more nervous playing in front of friends but now they seem completely comfortable.”

So what, then, does that say about this weekend’s two-game set?

“This weekend is big,” said Riley. “We tell our guys that it seems like every weekend is becoming the biggest weekend of the year.”

Said Soderquist, “We hope that this weekend would be a foreshadowing of who is battling for home ice. We certainly think we’re strong enough to be battling for home ice.”

Speaking of home ice, the fact that both games this weekend are played at Army might have some impact on the outcome. Soderquist says that Bentley has had both success and failure at Tate Rink, but this trip his club will face a different Army team than in years past: an Army team that’s playing very well.

“[Army has] been playing well,” said Soderquist. “I thought the first half they were playing well and just not winning.

“We definitely have to be sharp. It’ll be a battle of who wants to outwork who. I don’t think that either team has more talent. It will come down to who works harder.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

James Sixsmith, Holy Cross: Sixsmith has made a career at Holy Cross of scoring big goals at big moments, so it was no surprise to see him steal the show in Saturday’s non-league game at Dartmouth. In the final minute, Sixsmith scored shorthanded to give Holy Cross a 3-2 victory over the Big Green. He also added a goal and two assists in Thursday’s league game versus UConn.

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army: There seems to be a point when you can’t say any more good things about somebody. Army’s Brad Roberts is approaching that point. He’s received multiple league accolades this season, and is deservedly, once again, the reigning goaltender of the week after posting two shutouts and allowing one goal, total, in three games last week.

Rookie of the Week

Dan Giffin, Canisius: Canisius netminder Dan Giffin knew entering Saturday’s contest that it might take a shutout to beat the aforementioned Roberts. Giffin was 100 percent right and a shutout was exactly what he delivered. His 45 saves on the night were a career high as the Griffs knocked off Army, 2-0, to end a school-record 11-game losing streak.

Winning the Nonconference Battle

When Holy Cross beat Dartmouth, 3-2, on Saturday night, the Crusaders finished a six-game nonconference set against “Big Four” conference opponents with a 4-2-0 record, memorably the best record any team in the league has posted versus college hockey’s senior conferences.

That said, head coach Paul Pearl didn’t look at the record alone as impressive. There was an extra fact that he needed to underscore.

“I’ll continue to say it that everyone in our league would do better [in nonconference play] if we ever got home games,” said Pearl. “We’re proud to play Mercyhurst and it’s a hard battle each time we play. But we’re happy to get the equal number of games [at home and on the road]. The road is a factor. It’s a big factor.”

Four of Holy Cross’ six non-league games this season were played on the road. The sole exceptions were two games played against Rensselaer — one at the Maverick Stampede and the other at the Ohio Hockey Classic. In fact, since Holy Cross began playing a full Division I schedule in 1998, it has never hosted a game against a Big Four team.

“I’m not complaining. I’m just stating the obvious,” said Pearl. “You get six out-of-league games, and you pretty much know those are six road games.”

That makes a 4-2-0 record even more impressive.

“We played good teams out of league, so playing those games gets us ready for our league games and vice versa,” said Pearl. “You get out there and there are some pretty good venues to play in. It spices up the schedule.”

The hero on Saturday night was Sixsmith. His shorthanded goal with 28 seconds to play was the difference. The fact that he was even on the ice to score the goal, though, was a testimony to his improvement this season.

“The biggest thing he’s done this year has become so much more dependable defensively,” said Pearl of the player they call “Bubba.”

“He’s a regular penalty killer this year and that’s why he’s on the ice at that point in the game.”

The Unstoppable Force?

If you’re sitting anywhere besides first place right now in the Atlantic Hockey standings, you almost have to ask yourself, “Is Mercyhurst unstoppable?”

The Lakers appear to be becoming a juggernaut. Since December 1, they have posted an 8-2-0 record, the only losses coming in the same weekend at Army.

Taking out those two results, Mercyhurst has averaged six goals per game over the other eight contests. That’s not a typo, but it does border on unbelievable.

Talking to head coach Rick Gotkin, he’s not too shy to say that his team can score. But just like any good coach, he sees both sides to that equation.

“We have some gifted players offensively,” Gotkin said. “We have guys who know what to do with the puck. A lot of those guys see the ice very well so they’re excited to make plays.

“But we talk about defense every single day. We practice it every single day. I like to think that we’re getting better at it. But sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”

If pure goal-scoring isn’t enough, the Lakers will be faced with just three road games after this weekend series against Sacred Heart in Connecticut. The Lakers have always been one of the league’s best teams on home ice, so you have to wonder if there’s any end in sight to their success.

“It was nice to be home,” Gotkin said after returning to home last weekend for the first time since December 9. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been home. Like most teams, it’s a little bit more fun to play in front of your home fans.”

As good as Mercyhurst may be right now and as much advantage as things like home ice may bring, Gotkin is quick to note that his team still has room to grow.

“The bottom line is whatever you’re doing or not doing today, you have to be really good to play in that first playoff game,” said Gotkin. “That’s been our focus all year, no matter who we’re playing. Everything we do is to prepare us for that first playoff game in our league.”