This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 9, 2006

How Tough is Your Schedule

Four weeks remain in the Atlantic Hockey regular season. All but two teams have eight games remaining (Sacred Heart and Army each have six). Time to make any sort of standings move is definitely running thin, but with each remaining series for every team a two-game-in-two-nights situation, a lot of ground can be made up by teams playing head-to-head.

All that said, this is a good a time as any to do some math (yes, I love math) and figure out which club come season’s end should come out on top.

If you do an analysis of the remaining games, you can determine an average winning percentage for each team’s remaining opponents. For some school the news is good. For others, it’s not so cheery.

Canisius has the most work to do. The Griffs’ remaining schedule ranks toughest among the eight teams. The statistics say that Army has the easiest schedule, but with only six games remaining and two of those on the road against Mercyhurst, some may beg to differ.

Looking at the top three in the league — Holy Cross, Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst — things look pretty even down the stretch. Holy Cross’ remaining opponents average a .540 winning percentage, the second-toughest schedule. Mercyhurst’s aren’t far behind at .513. Those numbers include the fact that the two clubs will face off next weekend in Erie.

Sacred Heart’s opponents average a .450 winning percentage. Not too tough, you’d think, but two factors enter in that could impact the Pioneers. First, they have played two more games than Mercyhurst and Holy Cross. Those games in hand will be made up this weekend as Sacred Heart is idle.

You also have to look at the fact that Holy Cross and Sacred Heart will meet for two on February 24 and 25. But the Pioneers do have two games versus both Connecticut and American International, and eight points in those games would have a major impact.

In the race for home ice, Bentley has a much tougher schedule than Army, needing to play both Mercyhurst and Holy Cross down the stretch. The two games in hand that the Falcons have over Army take place this weekend. But having the Lakers as an opponent doesn’t make for an easy ride. The one thing we do know is that any win will clinch the fact that Bentley can finish no lower than fifth place.

So the question you’re asking: All this math is nice, but who is in the driver’s seat?

There’s a part of me that should like Mercyhurst’s schedule because five of the remaining game are at home and two of the road games are against Bentley, a team the Lakers manhandled this season.

That said, the three remaining teams on the Lakers’ schedule — Army, Bentley and Canisius — have all given the Lakers massive fits this season.

Sacred Heart may conceivably have an easier slate, but with only six games left against teams that the Pioneers are collectively 3-3-0 against this year makes it tough to imagine that they can come back. The deficit, though, is small enough that a sweep of Holy Cross could put the Pioneers in charge.

So I guess in the end, I like the team that controls its own destiny: Holy Cross.

If the Crusaders can take care of business and win the games that they’re supposed to win (two versus Canisius and two versus Bentley, I think they can split the series with Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart and still win the title.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Dale Reinhardt, Holy Cross: It was a thin week on the schedule and a thin week for offense. But that didn’t stop Reinhardt from having some impact on the scoresheet. He buried the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win over Bentley on Friday night, then added two assists on Saturday as the Crusaders completed the weekend sweep.

Goaltender of the Week

Tony Quesada, Holy Cross: When you’re hot, you’re hot and right now Quesada is smoking. Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl seems to have swayed from his goaltender rotation and is sticking with the streaking Quesada. In two wins over Bentley, the senior goaltender saved 49 of 51 shots, improving his record on the season to an impressive 14-3-1.

Rookie of the Week

Stefan Drew, Sacred Heart: If the Pioneers have any hope of capturing their first Atlantic Hockey championship, they need to pick up every point available. Last Saturday night, as Army was looking for a sweep to make it a lost weekend for Sacred Heart, Drew made 27 saves to post his first career shutout, blanking the Black Knights, 3-0.

Back to the Top

It’s taken the length of the season to get there, but Atlantic Hockey’s most consistent team is now on top of the league. The Crusaders, 15-4-1 in league play and 19-6-1 overall, leaped over idle Mercyhurst last weekend with a weekend sweep of Bentley.

Throughout the season, Holy Cross has been the model for a champion. Only twice in two non-league games (vs. Ohio State and Nebraska-Omaha) have the Crusaders lost lopsided games. The remaining four losses all came by either one goal or two goals with an empty net.

The Cross has gotten to this point without the high-octane offense of Mercyhurst, but rather by matching a group of steady offensive contributors with one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

As mentioned above, goaltender Tony Quesada is currently a major factor in that defensive success. Quesada is in the midst of a career-high eight-game winning streak, and over that span has not allowed more than three goals. He is three wins away from matching his career high of 17, which he set two years ago as a sophomore, carrying the Crusaders to their only NCAA tournament.

The Crusaders do not rely on one player or one line for offense. Five players have passed the 20-point mark and 10 have reached double digits. Mercyhurst is the only other team with such balance with an identical 10 double-digit scorers and six players with 20 or more points.

The balance for the Holy Cross offense was noticeable in last weekend’s sweep of Bentley. Three of Holy Cross’ four lines chipped in goals and the six goals came from six different players.

Jumping into first place and controlling its own destiny proves one thing for Holy Cross: consistency pays off.

The Rivalry

In a league as young as Atlantic Hockey (which is young even if you include the league’s history under MAAC leadership) you really can’t say any true rivalries have yet developed.

That, though, doesn’t mean that the league’s members are void of rivals.

This weekend, the league’s oldest and most historic program, Army, will cross the border to play one of its biggest rivals, Canada’s Royal Military College. The Canadian college counterpart has faced off against the Black Knights since 1923 and this weekend will renew the rivalry for the 75th time in the schools’ history.

The Army-RMC game is steeped in tradition and last year got national notoriety when College Sports Television broadcast the contest.

The game is an exhibition for both school but that doesn’t mean that either team takes this game lightly. In fact, the contest is generally the most physical for both teams each year.

Last year’s game featured a combined 92 penalty minutes. The 2003 contest topped that with 113. And in 2001, the clubs combined for 128 PIMs.

The physical nature of the game has led Army coach Brian Riley to voice some concern. Whereas Army, because it is in the NCAA, has an age limit to its players, RMC does not. Thus sometimes the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are facing off against older, stronger men, some moving towards the end of their hockey careers and not worried about injuries.

Riley said back in November that he prefers the rivalry against fellow American military academy Air Force over the more historic RMC clash.

Even playing a team of older, more physically mature players hasn’t really hurt the Black Knights of late. Army has won three in a row over RMC and four of the last six.

This year the two teams enter with similar records, and both are enjoying their best league seasons in recent memory. Army sits in fourth in Atlantic Hockey, while RMC is first in Ontario University Athletics.

Whoever does win, let’s hope that Army can get out of the game physically intact so as not to impact its run towards the postseason.