2003-04 Atlantic Hockey Preview
Think of Atlantic
Hockey as a streamlined version of the MAAC. Not only is the renamed
league short a pair of teams because Fairfield and Iona dropped
their programs after last season, but AH is finally free to make
its own decisions as a hockey conference. No longer do the eight
hockey-only members have to lobby the full-time MAAC schools (which
were Fairfield, Iona and Canisius) to represent their opinions and
feelings to the league decision-makers. Under the new governance,
every school is on equal footing and everyone – except the
hockey people at Fairfield and Iona, at least – seems to be
What will all
these changes mean on the ice? It's anybody's guess. Most AH coaches
say everything seems the same as it did in the MAAC, just under
a different name. So, most likely, the immediate impact will be
minimal. But, over the course of a few years, new commissioner Bob
DeGregorio, Jr., could take steps to bring Atlantic Hockey up to
speed with the stronger conferences. The No. 1 way to do that would
be upping the per-team scholarship limit from 11 to the NCAA limit
With so much
doubt surrounding the specifics of the league's future, let's instead
focus on what we know right now. We know the "new" league
will get under way with a bang when Mercyhurst travels to Michigan
on Oct. 4. We know the first conference game is Holy Cross at Canisius
seven days later. We know Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac should be the
top two contenders for the league crown, as they have been since
the Lakers joined the MAAC in 1999-2000. But Mercyhurst coach Rick
Gotkin warns against overlooking other veteran-laden teams, such
as Holy Cross and Sacred Heart.
team seems to get better every year," Gotkin said. "It's
a competitive league. All of our games are so close. There's some
separation in history, but I don't know how much separation there
is in the teams."
All right, we
know Connecticut didn't quite finish last in 2002-03. Fairfield
took that honor. But UConn wasn't good, placing 10th in the MAAC
with a 8-23-3 overall, and 7-16-3 conference record. And with Fairfield
gone, the Huskies should fall into the basement this year, right?
Not so fast, my friend. There probably won't be an almost-worst-to-first
turnaround in Storrs, but there definitely should be a shift from
almost-worst-to-decent. The Huskies have infused their roster with
a bevy of young talent. Their freshman class is 15-strong, including
10 forwards. In many cases, such a young squad would spell imminent
doom. But not in Atlantic Hockey, says Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold.
"This is a league that, for whatever reason, having a lot of
freshmen doesn't hurt you." Well then, UConn should be in great
FOR A FALL
advanced to the MAAC finals the last three years, but even Pecknold
doesn't know what to expect from his Bobcats this season. They'll
be without star forward Brian Herbert, who had 56 goals and 110
assists in his four-year Quinnipiac career and was Pecknold's top
faceoff-winner and power-play quarterback. To make matters worse,
three of the Bobcats' top defensemen (Matt Erhart, Dan Ennis and
Wade Winkler) are also gone. Who will replace them? That's what
Pecknold is wondering. "I don't know how we're going to be,
because of our defense," he says. "We can be a top four
team in this league – if we get our six defensemen set."
Top four? Sounds like expectations have been tempered a bit in Hamden.
coach Brian Cavanaugh got a contract extension through 2006-07 this
summer. But sooner or later, the Golden Griffins are going to have
to start winning again. From 1999-2002, Cavanaugh's squad fell from
third to fourth to fifth in the MAAC before finishing seventh with
a 12-21-4 record last season. This year's edition is tough to read
in the preseason. On one hand, Cavanaugh has 21 letterwinners returning.
But the talent level in Buffalo doesn't appear quite as strong as
it has been in the past. Another subpar season for the Griffins
won't go over well at a school that's used to high conference finishes.
ACT TO FOLLOW
It's not the
biggest shadow in the world, but Atlantic Hockey is going to have
to make a name for itself as an independent conference. It retains
the MAAC's auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament, and the league needs
to make use of the national exposure it entails. Without a doubt,
Mercyhurst can pull off some upsets this year, but the rest of the
league needs to make some noise in high-profile games if Atlantic
Hockey plans to establish itself as a suitable counterpart of the
four older conferences. The MAAC took the first steps in that direction,
and AH needs to keep it rolling.
forward David Wrigley might have cemented this honor when he scored
against Minnesota in last year's NCAA West Regional. The 6-foot,
200-pound junior is the top offensive threat on a loaded Lakers
front line. He led the team with 17 goals, 24 assists and 41 points
last season, while also recording three game-winners. At 23 years
old, the Washago, Ontario, native is mature on the ice, and he has
a knack for making his playing partners better. Mercyhurst's balanced
scoring attack makes it hard for opposing teams to key on Wrigley,
which should open things up for him to further inflate his numbers
goaltender Jason Smith, a sixth-round draft pick of the New Jersey
Devils this summer, will get plenty of time between the pipes for
the Pioneers in his rookie season. The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder from
St. Lambert, Quebec, was named the Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League's
most promising player, best goaltender, and defensive rookie of
the year last season. In leading the Lennoxville Cougars to the
national semifinals, Smith went 22-4-1 with a 2.29 goals-against
average and set the league's single-season save percentage record
(.920). Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah said Smith will initially
share time with junior Kevin LaPointe, but the freshman could win
the job if he out-performs the veteran. "He's gonna need some
time to adjust, but he's a great goaltender," Hannah says.
Greg Kealey might be the best two-way forward in Atlantic Hockey,
but aside from opposing players and coaches, not many people outside
of Worcester know his name. The senior from Nepean, Ont., is the
Crusaders' leading returning scorer (11-22—33) and has posted
30 or more points in each of his first three seasons at Holy Cross.
But it's what he does away from the net that impresses the rest
of the league. He's a dynamo in the faceoff circle, an excellent
penalty-killer and a solid back-checker. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound
economics major isn't afraid to play physically, either, as evidenced
by his 60 penalty minutes – good for second on the team. Kealey's
the No. 1 reason why the Crusaders look like a threat to Mercyhurst's
and Quinnipiac's stranglehold on the top two slots in the league
1. Captain Obvious
wonders: Are any other league teams in danger of going the way of
Fairfield and Iona?
2. American International beat one team (Quinnipiac) with a winning
record last year. Will longtime head coach Gary Wright's squad put
up a better fight against good competition this year?
3. Will Bentley
be able to keep it close, or even pull off an upset, against Union
or UMass Lowell – the first ECAC and Hockey East foes, respectively,
the Falcons have ever played?
Four things you can take to the bank in Atlantic Hockey this season
1. One of Gotkin's
Lakers will win the league scoring title and another will finish
in the top three.
Matt Froehlich will lead the conference in goals again. But unlike
last season, he'll make the all-league first team this time.
3. Talented Army forward Chris Casey will do his best to pick the
brains of Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Simon Gagne
and the rest of the Philadelphia Flyers when the NHL team visits
Tate Rink in West Point for workouts Oct. 4-7.
4. Call it a
hunch, but Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac won't meet in the conference
tourney's title game for the fourth-consecutive year. Someone from
the lower division will upset the Bobcats in the postseason.
Lakers have won three-straight regular-season titles, and there's
no reason to think the streak will stop this year. David Wrigley
and Adam Tackaberry grab the headlines, but play-making junior
Rich Hansen's superior ice vision sets everything up.
Bobcats lost several stars to graduation, but quite a few standouts
still dot the roster. Forward Matt Craig is the conference's
preseason player of the year and Iona transfer Mark Hallam (11-18-29)
is eligible this season because the Gaels dropped their program.
Also, watch Bobcat freshman Dustin Hughes, who led the BCHL
in assists last season, and steady goalie Jamie Holden.
most important moment of the Crusaders' offseason came when
coach Paul Pearl recommitted to HC after flirting with a preps
job. Now, they are poised to challenge for a championship.
are a lot of teams in our league, like us, that are very hungry
because they've never been to the top before," coach Shaun
Hannah said. Rest assured, the Pioneers are getting closer.
only a sophomore, goalie Brad Roberts is the best netminder
in the league. He went 15-16-0 with a 2.74 GAA and .913 save
percentage last season and can steal several games for the Black
Eric Nelson, one of just four seniors on the uber-young Huskies
roster, will have to keep the team together during eight-straight
road games to start the season.
youngest coach in Division I college hockey, Ryan Soderquist,
25, will rely on three-year starter Simon St. Pierre in goal
as the Falcons try to follow up on just their second ever appearance
in the conference tournament.
Golden Griffins' plentiful experience will be needed during
a brutal opening month that includes games against New Hampshire,
UMass-Lowell, Lake Superior State, Mercyhurst and Holy Cross.
scorer, 5-foot-8 Guillaume Caron, returns, but AIC is porous
this to a friend
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