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Too Close for Comfort

Several leagues had close races to the finish this season. None, though, could touch Atlantic Hockey.

It took the final minutes of the final games of the regular season this past Saturday night in order for the league champion to be crowned. It was a Pierre Napert-Frenette goal with 1:03 remaining in regulation that broke a 2-2 tie between Holy Cross and Bentley, lifting the Crusaders not only to victory but also to the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings.

The Holy Cross victory, along with Sacred Heart’s loss to Connecticut, 4-3, moved the Crusaders out of a tie for first place and into sole possession of the top spot.

“It was a great feeling,” said head coach Paul Pearl, whose club has won the regular-season crown two of the last three years. “When we had scored the winner we had just found out that [Sacred Heart] lost. We were pretty excited.”

Holy Cross finished the regular season at 23-9-2 overall, the most wins in the history of the program.

Sacred Heart also set an all-time win mark with its 21-11-2 mark but fell just short. Its Saturday night loss, along with Mercyhurst’s weekend sweep of Canisius, allowed the Lakers to leapfrog the Pioneers and take the second playoff seed. Sacred Heart, similar to Boston College in Hockey East, fell from first to third on the season’s final night.

“This league gets better every year,” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin, whose club will host Canisius yet again this Saturday in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals. “It was interesting how it unfolded at the end.”

Gotkin, whose game was the final of the four league games to finish on Saturday night, admitted that after hearing the score updates between the second and third periods, he didn’t know anything further until after his game was over. At that point his Lakers had fallen one point short.

“Holy Cross has been a terrific team for the last three or four years,” said Gotkin. “We battled hard right to the end but now we can battle in the playoffs.”

Which brings us to an interesting topic in and of itself. Two of last weekend’s four series will be repeated in this weekend’s quarterfinals, though this time it’s a one-and-done scenario.

Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst will rematch against Connecticut and Canisius, respectively. The ‘Hurst might have swept the Griffs this year but won four games by a total of five goals. Sacred Heart, on the other hand, lost the season series to UConn, 3-1, which will obviously play in the back of both teams’ minds (more on that below).

This year’s playoffs will change format from last season. Whereas last year the highest remaining seed after the quarterfinals hosted the league final four, this year Holy Cross will host the semifinals and finals, a choice that was made before the season.

Of course, that hardly diminishes what the Crusaders accomplished in winning the regular-season title.

“Eight teams set out to play 28 games and see who gets the most points,” said Pearl. “So we’re very proud of that achievement.”

Last weekend brought to a close a finish in league play that almost had you believing that winning the title was taboo. Over the course of the last three weeks, Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross each controlled its own destiny to clinch the regular-season title at some point.

The Lakers faltered first, losing three of four points to Holy Cross three weeks ago. Sacred Heart then swept Holy Cross two weekends ago. And in the final weekend, had the Pioneers swept UConn, they’d have been co-champs with Holy Cross and taken the top playoff seed on a tiebreaker. The 4-3 shocker at the hands of UConn raised plenty of eyebrows, but most coaches will tell you its nothing but parity.

“Sometimes you look at the standings and talk about parity,” said Gotkin. “But this really is a league where any team can beat anyone.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Pierre-Luc O'Brien won the final POTW of the 2005-06 regular season.

Pierre-Luc O’Brien won the final POTW of the 2005-06 regular season.

Pierre-Luc O’Brien, Sacred Heart: O’Brien, who finished the season as the league’s overall leading scorer with 50 points, scored his final four of the regular season in Friday’s 8-3 victory over UConn. He potted a goal and three assists in that win.

Goaltender of the Week

Tony Quesada, Holy Cross: In a weekend series against Bentley in which every goal for and against mattered, Quesada allowed just two goals finishing the weekend with a combined 48 saves. His shutout on Friday was the second of the season and sixth of his career.

Rookie of the Week

Bear Trapp, Sacred Heart: It may have taken all season, but the point-scoring machine finally buried his first career hat trick in Friday’s 8-3 win over UConn. He finished the season with 43 points, 10 better than any other freshman in the league.

Playoff Format Still Draws Controversy

Between the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and Atlantic Hockey, this year will mark the eighth year that member teams have played a single-elimination playoff format.

That doesn’t mean all of them have to like it.

Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, who, in his seven years in the league has never lost an opening-round playoff game, is still critical of the one-and-done opening round. Four of the college hockey’s six conferences — Hockey East, the ECACHL, the WCHA and the CCHA — use a best-of-3 format in the first round. The ECACHL and CCHA also use the best-of-3 in the second round, which happens to be each league’s quarterfinal.

Gotkin says that the single-elimination format puts pressure on the higher teams, and with the tournament’s winner moving on to the NCAA tournament, the league is rewarding the club that wins three straight games and doesn’t necessarily send the best representative.

“Anything could happen in single elimination,” said Gotkin. “I’ve been saying it for years that it’s easier to be that fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth seed than be in the top four.

“When you play one game, anything could happen. A bounce here or a referee’s call can determine the outcome.

“Look at Syracuse and UConn [men’s basketball] today,” he added. UConn, the number-one team in the country, fell to Syracuse in the Big East quarterfinals, a single-elimination tournament. “When you talk about a one-game scenario in a league where teams keep getting better [every year], anything can happen. The concept favors the upset.”

Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl looks at it in a different light. Though probably not pleased to know that in one night his team’s season could be over, he says it’s something he and his club are used to by now.

“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage at all,” said Pearl. “Whether or not it’s fair or not fair, that’s what we as a body decided to do. It’s what it is. We knew that. It’s not like they called me two weeks ago and said we’re doing a one-and-done type of thing.”

For the record, in the two years that Atlantic Hockey has been in existence, the higher seed is 6-2 in quarterfinal play. In 2004, sixth-seeded Canisius upset Quinnipiac in overtime. Last year, seventh seed Bentley knocked off Canisius, the tournament’s second seed, 4-2.

The Matchups

So with the one-and-done talk behind us, let’s look at how each quarterfinal game shakes out.

Interestingly, three of the four quarterfinal games will be geographically convenient. AIC may be the bottom seed in the tournament, but will have to drive just 60 minutes from Springfield, Mass., to Holy Cross in Worcester.

Canisius will be sent on the road as the No. 7 seed, but will have to bus just two hours to Mercyhurst. UConn, as the sixth seed, will make the quick trip down I-91 to Bridgeport to face Sacred Heart.

The only team that will be required to make substantial travel plans is Army, which will motor four hours to Bentley to face the Falcons in the 4-5 game.

All that said, each quarterfinal provides interesting storylines.

Holy Cross may be the number-one seed but will face an American International team that gave it fits all year. The Crusaders took the season series, 3-0-1, but in three of the four games were forced to rally from behind. The single tie between the clubs, a 1-1 draw on November 18, saw the Crusaders score an extra-attacker goal with three seconds remaining to salvage a point.

Mercyhurst may have swept Canisius in its season series but the four wins came by a total of five goals. The only two-goal win came last Saturday night, a 4-2 victory, but even in that game the Lakers scored an empty-netter with three seconds remaining. Throw in the fact that Canisius is coached by former Mercyhurst assistant Dave Smith, and Lakers coach Rick Gotkin almost has to worry about the Griffs having already memorized the Mercyhurst playbook.

Sacred Heart falling to the three seed meant a first-round matchup that may have head coach Shaun Hannah having nightmares all week. UConn was the only team to give the Pioneers fits this season, winning three of the four games on the season including, of course, last Saturday’s contest that dropped Sacred Heart from first to third.

The Army-Bentley game is one that may never end. Three of the four games between the two clubs this season went to overtime and finished in ties. If you’re heading to the John A. Ryan rink this Saturday night, pack your sleeping bag and be prepared to leave sometime on Sunday.

Which teams may have an edge on home ice? Possibly all of them. The four host clubs are a combined 40-17-5 at home this season. Sacred Heart leads the way with a 13-1-1 mark. Bentley has the worst record of the four at home at 7-7-1.

Parting Shots

• Army netminder Brad Roberts was the sole Atlantic Hockey representative selected to participate in the newly-instituted skills competition that will take place Friday during Frozen Four weekend in Milwaukee.

• Though Sacred Heart’s Pierre-Luc O’Brien may have finished the season with the most points overall in the conference, Mercyhurst’s Ben Cottreau and Holy Cross’ Tyler McGregor tied for the top spot in scoring in conference play. Each posted 43 points, McGregor doing so in 28 games and Cottreau in 27.

• Holy Cross’ Tony Quesada swept the leadership in league goaltending. His 15-3-2 record, 2.05 goals against average and .931 save percentage were all tops in conference play.

• Bentley’s fourth-place finish was its best since joining Division I in 1999-2000. Army’s fifth-place finish tied for its best mark in MAAC/Atlantic Hockey play.