With best start in seven years, Holy Cross next in line to challenge Niagara

At the beginning of the season, I talked to every Atlantic Hockey coach and all but one predicted a finish similar to 2011-12, which was so close it bordered on a statistical anomaly.

Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl went against the grain and told me, “Statistically that’s not going to happen again. It was absurd and crazy. I have never been in a league with a finish like that.

“I’m going to make a bold prediction that someone will win the league by five points.”

His forecast is standing up right now with Niagara opening an eight-point lead the in the standings after a road sweep of American International last weekend.

The No. 15 Purple Eagles travel to Holy Cross this weekend to face Pearl’s Crusaders, who are in a three-way tie for third place, nine points behind Niagara. This two-game series is the only meeting between the two schools, so it’s a huge one for both teams.

“I certainly thought that Niagara would be good,” Pearl said. “I also thought Mercyhurst would be good, that we would be good. It’s not surprising that [Niagara] is out in front but there are some other teams in this league that are very good as well.”

At 11-7-2, the Crusaders are off to their best start since 2005-06 when they shocked the college hockey world with an upset of No. 1 seed Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That win sent a message that Atlantic Hockey was a league to be reckoned with in the tournament, a trend that has continued since.

“It’s hard to compare to other years,” Pearl said of this year’s Crusaders team compared to that 2005-06 team. “The whole league is so much better. I think we might be a more balanced team but the way every team has gotten better, it’s very different.

“Our special teams started poorly and then really got on a roll near the end of the [calendar] year, but we haven’t been as strong lately. We’re having our ups and downs.”

The Crusaders have an interesting mix of veterans up front and rookies on the blue line. Four of Holy Cross’ five leading scorers are seniors, led by Kyle Fletcher (18 points), Brandon Nunn (15 points) and Rob Linsmayer (15 Points). Junior Adam Schmidt leads the team in goals with 10.

Three freshmen have seen considerable time on defense, supporting sophomore goaltender Matt Ginn (2.92 goals against average).

“They’ve stepped in pretty well,” Pearl said. “Because of some injuries it’s been a baptism by fire. We’re pretty big on playing everyone on the bench so they’ve needed to come along fast.”

Goaltending has dominated the league the past two seasons, with a dearth of big point-getters. Pearl said better blueliners are a main reason.

“This year is the best overall the league’s been [in terms of talent],” Pearl said. “It’s not just the goaltending, and there’s been good goaltending. But a new league takes seven or eight years to get its share of quality defensemen. Not that we haven’t had some really good defenseman; [Holy Cross’ Jon] Landry and RIT’s [Chris Tanev] come to mind. But the fifth and sixth defensemen are so much stronger. Mercyhurst has fast, good defensemen who can skate. We saw that this past weekend.”

The Lakers and Crusaders split their two-game series to remain tied for third. Next up is Niagara, undefeated in league play so far. When asked about having home ice for the series, Pearl said, “Well, I’d rather play them here than go to Niagara … but they’re good wherever they play.”

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Kyle De Laurell, Air Force

The senior forward had four goals, including a hat trick on Friday, to lead the Falcons to a win and a tie with Army. De Laurell leads his team with 19 points.

Atlantic Hockey co-goalies of the week:
Carsen Chubak, Niagara
Josh Watson, RIT

Chubak made 49 saves in a series sweep of American International. He’s 13-2-4 on the season and his .953 save percentage leads the nation.

Watson had a shutout, the second of his career, against Bentley on Saturday in a 4-0 win to help the Tigers to earn a split. He made 31 saves in the win and stopped 57 of 60 shots on the weekend.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Chris Rumble, Canisius

The freshman had a goal and two assists in a sweep of Sacred Heart. It was just his second and third career games since joining the Golden Griffins lineup recently after a battle with leukemia.

By the numbers

Be it straight-up, game-stealing goaltending or great team defense, week after week we’ve seen consistently good and often great performances in net in Atlantic Hockey.

This past week was no exception. Niagara’s Chubak and RIT’s Watson shared the league’s weekly goaltending award, but it wasn’t a close call between just those two. Look at some of the numbers put up:

Save percentage (over two games unless noted otherwise): Watson .950, Jordan Tibbett (Mercyhurst) .947 (one game), Chubak .942, Branden Komm (Bentley) .942, Ben Meisner (American International) .941, Max Strang (Mercyhurst) .941 (one game), Jason Torf (Air Force) .930, Matt Ginn (Holy Cross) .929.

Total saves: Meisner 80, Komm 65, Watson 57, Torf 53, Ginn 52, Chubak 49.

Team record: Chubak 2-0, Torf 1-0-1, Ginn 1-1, Komm 1-1, Watson 1-1, Strang 1-0, Tibbett 0-1, Meisner 0-2.

So who gets your award? Reply in the comments below.

More support, please

Mercyhurst’s Tibbett is 3-5 on the season and 1-2 in his last three starts, but he’s doing his part.

In those last three games, 2-1 losses against Holy Cross and Maine and a 3-1 win over Clarkson, Tibbett had a .958 save percentage, allowing just five goals in the three games on 118 shots.

Shut down

For the first time this season, Bentley’s Brett Gensler was held without a point in consecutive games last week at RIT.

It was only the fourth and fifth games this season that the junior and reigning AHA scoring leader has been held scoreless. As a result he lost the national scoring lead to Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau, who is averaging 1.62 points per game. Gensler is in second at 1.53.

Making it official

Bruce Marshall’s resignation from Connecticut resulted in assistant coach David Berard, who had been running the team since Marshall took a medical leave of absence in early November, being named the official interim coach of the Huskies.

UConn’s win and loss against Robert Morris last weekend are the first credited to Berard. The Huskies’ seven wins, eight losses and two ties to open this season go into the record book under Marshall.