A three-team race to the finish line of the
Atlantic Hockey season brought out great character and uncovered
some flaws with the contenders.
Holy Cross won the marathon with the closest
finish of any college hockey season. The Crusaders finished
a point ahead of Mercyhurst, which finished a point ahead
of Sacred Heart. Each team had a piece of the lead at least
once in the past six weeks, but Holy Cross never let go
once it moved into the top spot on Feb. 3.
One has to wonder how Holy Cross could come
out flat in a crucial two-game set with Sacred Heart just
two weeks ago. The Crusaders recovered and will play at
home all tournament long, but has the seed of doubt been
Sacred Heart heads into the tournament with
the most momentum, having gone 8-2-1 in its last 11. One
of those yips, however, came in the season finale at Connecticut,
denying the Pioneers their first regular-season crown (Sacred
Heart would have prevailed in the tie-breaker with Holy
Mercyhurst is the league’s most-proven
program with six consecutive Final Four appearances but
it is a team that lost twice to Sacred Heart in January,
split with Holy Cross in February and dropped three games
to Army. The Lakers are proven scorers but are going to
need some good goaltending if they want to repeat and claim
their fourth tourney championship.
Home ice is nice, so that gives Holy Cross
the edge in the post-season. The Crusaders are 9-4-1 at
the Hart Center, and the hometown crowd should be whipped
into a frenzy for AHA Final Four weekend. Tony Quesada has
been a money goaltender in the post-season.
No. 8 American
International at No. 1 Holy Cross
AIC: 6-20-5 (6-17-5 AHA)
HC: 23-9-2 (19-7-2 AHA) Season series: HC leads, 3-0-1
Yellow Jacket Facts: AIC
held a lead in three of the four games with Holy Cross,
and 87% of season series was played in a tie or one-goal
differential. AIC, which has never won a quarter-final
playoff match,.posted its most victories (league and
overall) in three seasons.
Crusader Facts: Holy Cross won its second
regular-season title. The Crusaders won the Atlantic
Hockey pennant and tourney in 2004, and the MAAC tourney
How AIC Wins: If they
pull ahead, the Yellow Jackets have to finally prove
they can hold a lead against the Crusaders. Cutting
down Holy Cross’ odd-man rushes would be a good
How HC Wins: The Crusaders have to pay close
attention to AIC’s speed in the neutral zone,
and stay out of the penalty box.
No. 7 Canisius at No. 2 Mercyhurst
Canisius: 10-22-2 (8-18-2 AHA) Mercyhurst: 21-12-1 (19-8-1 AHA)
Season series: Mercyhurst leads, 4-0
Golden Griffin Fact:
The Griffs’ drop from second place last season
to seventh ties for biggest drop in eight years of
Laker Fact: Were it not for an empty net
goal on Saturday, all four games between Canisius
and Mercyhurst this season would have been one-goal
victories the Lakers.
How Canisius wins: Mercyhurst
is prone to taking penalties and Canisius has to make
the Lakers pay. Griffin thinking dictates the best
way to counter a powerful offense is being aggressive
on offense, too.
How Mercyhurst wins: Speed kills, and that’s
what the Lakers need to emphasize. Mercyhurst beat
Canisius last week with 14 skaters; it can certainly
do it with 18.
Husky Fact: Connecticut,
the only lower seed with a winning series record against
its quarterfinal foe, hasn't won a playoff game since
2002. Pioneer Fact: Sacred Heart closed
the regular season with a 5-1-1 streak, a near reversal
of last season’s 0-5 slide into a quarterfinal
How UConn Wins: The
Huskies can't let Sacred Heart jump out to a big lead
and gain momentum. Staying out of the penalty box
is essential. How SHU Wins: The Pioneers need to
step up on the power play, win more battles for loose
pucks and get traffic in front of Husky netminder
5 Army at No. 4 Bentley Arny: 12-17-6 (10-12-6 AHA) Bentley: 13-16-5 (11-12-5 AHA) Season series: Bentley leads, 1-0-3
Black Knight Fact:
Army’s fifth-place finish ties its highest mark
in league play. It also finished fifth in 2002-03.
Army, like Bentley, improved three spots in the AHA
standings from last year. Falcon Fact: Bentley, the only team
to ever finish last in the MAAC/AHAand later crack
the top four, is one of only three teams to reach
the semifinals at least twice in the past three seasons.
How Army wins: Brad
Roberts has to come up big in order to get his second
playoff win. Army has to send pucks to the net and
screen Bentley goalie Ray Jean. The Black Knights’
improved power play could certainly come into play. How Bentley wins: The Falcons need
to take advantage of its smaller ice surface at home
by playing a grinding game and slowing down Army’s
rushes, staying out of the penalty box and riding
the hot hand of Ray Jean.
THE GATE CRASHER
The last team to knock off Holy Cross at home
was Sacred Heart a mere two weeks ago. The Pioneers were
one late goal away from clinching the regular-season title,
and just about every team would hate to face goalie Jason
Smith if he has the hot hand. Two teams which are not offensive
powers but have goaltenders who can shut down an opponent
any night are No. 5 Army, with Brad Roberts, and No. 4 Bentley,
with Ray Jean.
INCH'S ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
G – Jason Smith, Sacred Heart
This has to be one of the toughest choices in years. Tony
Quesada of Holy Cross put up outstanding numbers (2.28 GAA,
.925 save pct.) but Smith has done just a little better
(2.22 GAA, .929). Not only that, but in the past six weeks
Smith twice stifled Mercyhurst’s high-powered offense
with one-goal efforts and outdueled Quesada twice.
D – Jamie Hunt, Mercyhurst
The talented blueliner would be the first draft choice of
almost every Atlantic Hockey coach because of his ability
to run the power play, his success when jumping into the
offense and his one-on-one defensive skills.
D – Tim Songin, Canisius
Songin does not have the offensive numbers (13 points) that
Hunt has but his defensive skills are unmatched in the league
and his presence in the lineup for 134 games has provided
a steadying influence for a Griffins program which has had
its share of ups and downs over the years.
F – Tyler McGregor, Holy Cross
McGregor has been a proven scoring threat throughout his
career and will finish among the league’s all-time
scoring leaders. He has seen a big jump in point production
to 47 during his final campaign and his 22 goals are a career
F – Pierre-Luc O’Brien,
The junior has moved into the conference scoring lead with
50 points. He ranks third in assists with 33.
F – Dave Borrelli, Mercyhurst
Borrelli is the league’s top goal scorer with 26 and
ranks second in overall points with 48. His production has
been consistent throughout the season.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Paul Pearl, Holy Cross. Sure, his team is
loaded but consider the facts. Holy Cross is third in scoring
offense and second in scoring defense. The Crusaders are
the least penalized team in the league and the most efficient
in penalty killing. Holy Cross grabbed the league lead on
Feb. 3 and, managed to keep hold of it – something
Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart can't claim. Most importantly,
his team produced four critical non-league victories, beating
Rensselaer twice and Dartmouth and Massachusetts once apiece.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jamie Hunt, Mercyhurst. As mentioned above,
Hunt owns an all-around game. Hunt’s scoring (10-33–43)
has dropped off ever so slightly as of late, but he still
is ranked in the top 10 nationally in points and ranks second
among NCAA defenseman in that category.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Bear Trapp, Sacred Heart. The rookie with
the catchy name burst onto the scene with a run of game-winning
goals in the first semester and six for the season. Seven
of his 16 goals came on the power play and he is running
away with the freshman scoring race, leading his next closest
competitor, Bentley's Anthony Canzoneri, by 15 points.
Ray Jean, Bentley. The junior had to sit out
a year after transferring from Maine and needed some time
to shake off the rust. Over the past three weekends of Bentley’s
run to secure the fourth home playoff spot, Jean has given
up less than two goals per game, winning four of six contests
– one of the losses was a 1-0 decision
in a goaltender's duel with Holy Cross' Tony Quesada. So
far this season, Jean is allowing 2.87 goals per game and
has a .918 save percentage.