This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 2, 2006

Just When You Thought It Was Safe…

News flash: Don’t go handing the Atlantic Hockey title to Mercyhurst just yet.

The once unbeatable-looking Lakers have returned to Earth and have watched the race for the league’s regular-season title become tighter than the Olsen twins’ meal allowance.

What was once a seven point lead over its closest pursuer — Holy Cross — has turned into a slight one-point margin over both the Crusaders and Sacred Heart. Add to that the fact that Holy Cross has two games in hand, which will be made up this very weekend. Holy Cross plays a home and home series with Bentley while the Lakers play just a single non-league game with RIT.

Translation: We have a race to the finish.

This photo finish has been caused by two things in particular: Mercyhurst not playing its best hockey, particularly in the opening games of certain series, coupled with most teams throwing their best game at the Lakers.

“We’ve talked to the team about that,” said Gotkin about his team’s poor play on Friday nights. Four times in league play Mercyhurst has put forward below-average games to open a two-game weekend series. The first two times, the Lakers bounced back with victories on Saturday. The past two, which included last week’s sweep at the hands of Sacred Heart, the Lakers have played well in the second game but gotten stonewalled.

“We wish we knew what was missing or what the problem was. I think it’s a lot of little things. It has to do with focus and being a little bit more mentally prepared.

“Who knows how first place will end up, but if we don’t get first place, we’ll look back to those two weekends in which we got swept.”

Gotkin admits that this year more than any, it seems that his club has faced every team playing at their respective peaks. Though Mercyhurst has always had success in the league, it seems this year more than any other, the Lakers are constantly walking around with a target on their backs.

“Two or three years ago we could go on the road and play okay and get three or four points,” said Gotkin. “It’s not like it used to be. You go on the road now and you have to play pretty darn good to get points.

“We’ve gotten a lot of teams’ best games. It doesn’t matter who we play, we get everybody’s ‘A’ game. That’s just something we have to work through.”

As much as a playoff race might cause heartburn and sleepless nights for coaches like Gotkin, the veteran bench boss says he’d prefer things stay close right to the finish.

“The years that it was too easy for us, we weren’t successful in the playoffs,” said Gotkin about the playoff race. “In the years we were battling and figuring things out we did pretty well. Sometimes that keeps you sharper.

“Last year we were never in first place all year. But we still had the urgency every single night.”

Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl concurs.

“I love being in a race,” said Pearl. “It’s fun. It’s nice to be at the top.

“You go through a long season to have the opportunity to try to do something good. We’ve gotten to February and we’re in it, which is great. Now let’s see what we can do.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Tyler McGregor, Holy Cross: In an explosive offensive weekend in which Holy Cross needed just about every goal it scored, McGregor factored into seven of Holy Cross’ 12 tallies. In Friday night’s come-from-behind win over American International, McGregor scored the game winning goal while adding three assists.

Goaltender of the Week

Jason Smith, Sacred Heart: There was one word to describe Smith’s play last weekend when hosting first-place Mercyhurst: unbeatable. Smith stopped 25 shots in Friday’s 4-1 victory, but as you can imagine, the win woke the sleeping giant that is the Mercyhurst offense. The Lakers pelted Smith on Saturday with 55 shots, but he stood tall, allowing just one goal in a 2-1 win.

Rookie of the Week

Dan Giffin, Canisius: The Griffs were a struggling team two weeks ago, but the responsibility for a recent turnaround is mostly owed to Giffin. On Friday night he posted his second straight shutout, blanking Connecticut, 5-0. He followed that up with his third straight win over the Huskies, 5-2, on Saturday. On the weekend, Giffin stopped 76 of 78 shots.

Brick Wall Weekend

There were a lot of impressive team performances this past weekend (namely Holy Cross, Canisius and Sacred Heart all pulling off weekend sweeps). A closer look shows all three sweeps had a critically important theme linking them.

All three series saw impressive goaltending.

Holy Cross’ weekend sweep of AIC may not have seemed like it was full of masterful goaltending. But when Holy Cross’ Ben Conway was pulled on Friday night, replacement and rotation-mate Tony Quesada shut down the Yellow Jackets, allowing his team to rally to victory. Quesada followed that up the next night with a 43-save performance to earn his sixth straight victory.

For Canisius, rookie Dan Giffin joined the recent ranks of Army’s Brad Roberts, BC’s Cory Schneider and Vermont’s Joe Fallon by posting back-to-back shutouts. His 5-0 blanking of UConn on Friday night, coupled with a 2-0 win at Army the previous Saturday, put Giffin on an impressive shutout streak. Though UConn broke the streak on Saturday, Giffin still posted a career-high 50 saves for his (and the team’s) third straight victory.

“He’s been making a lot of saves, but more importantly the saves come at key times in games,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “We gave up the first goal on the second night at UConn and right after that he made a big save to keep the game from going to 2-0.”

Smith credits Giffin as one of the main reason that the Griffs ended a school-record 11-game losing streak less than two weeks ago.

“When we were in that streak, you talked with other coaches and friends and family to find out ways to get out of it,” said Smith. “It always came back to the same thing: goaltending. We needed goaltending to steal a game and that’s what Dan gave us.”

The final masterful — and possibly most impressive — performance between the pipes came from Sacred Heart’s Jason Smith, who single-handedly shut down the nation’s top offense in Mercyhurst.

Lakers head coach Rick Gotkin said he didn’t think his team played that well in Friday’s opener but threw everything that they had at Smith a night later but couldn’t find a way to solve him.

“I thought Smith was the best player on the ice. He was sick on Saturday,” said Gotkin of Smith, who tied a career high on Saturday with 55 saves. “I think our league has some great goaltenders and has for a long time. But I think Jason Smith is one of the better goaltenders in our conference.”

Parting Shots

• Quote of the week goes to Gotkin. His Lakers hosted the U.S. Under-18 team on Tuesday night (and posted an 8-7 overtime win). Gotkin had more than a dozen NHL scouts asking to be credentialed for the game, to which he always used the same comical line: “I’d ask, ‘Are you hear to see anyone in particular?'” said Gotkin. “They all said they wanted to see Eric Johnson. I had to tell them he’s not playing this week.” Of course Gotkin was referring to his own player, Eric Johnson, a senior forward with six points this season currently nursing an injury. Of course, the scouts were referring to Erik Johnson, the standout prospect for the U.S. team who is currently ranked number one by NHL Central Scouting.

• For the first time in three years, Pearl pulled goaltender Ben Conway from a game. Conway was lifted when Holy Cross trailed, 5-3, at the end of three periods on Friday night against AIC. The Crusaders came back and won the game, 7-5. Pearl, though, says that one game won’t affect Conway’s position in the goaltending rotation. “There have been some games where I should’ve been pulled from behind the bench,” said Pearl. “So I can’t judge a player by one game.”

• Mercyhurst, the only club playing out of league this weekend, will get a chance to renew an old rivalry against RIT this Sunday at home. The Lakers and Tigers were bitter rivals in the days of the ECAC West, and will get to rebuild that battle beginning next season when RIT joins Atlantic Hockey. Gotkin said that he expects RIT to have an immediate impact on Atlantic Hockey: “I think they’re going to come in and be great. Knowing the kids they have and their recruits, plus their commitment to men’s ice hockey, they’re going to be real good quick.”

• Bentley and Army, playing a key series last weekend in the battle for the final home-ice spot, settled little by battling to back-to-back ties on both nights. They were Bentley’s first back-to-back ties since December 2003, though those two ties were separated by 23 days due to the exam break. Army has to go back even further, to December of 2001, when the Black Knights drew on consecutive nights with Connecticut.

• Pearl points on that there may be something more important on Valentine’s Day than giving your significant other chocolates. As Pearl notes, all Atlantic Hockey teams will have played the same number of games at that point — 22, to be exact — which in Pearl’s mind means that the standings become a lot easier to analyze.

• The fact that Canisius only plays three more home games might be a bit disconcerting, but the Griffs are only 2-8-1 at home (compared to 6-7-0 on the road). Says Smith, “We try to play the same all the time. In my career as a player and a coach, every team takes on a different personality. I don’t see any difference between home and the road. We’ve just had better success away from home.