February 29, 2012

Atlantic Hockey Journal: No bye, no problem for Crusaders

By Allen Lessels

Holy Cross posted another fine February in Atlantic Hockey and now will see what it can do with March. 

Holy Cross forward Andrew Cox (Photo courtesy of Peter Cooke)

The Crusaders finished in a three-way tie for third-place in the league with Mercyhurst and RIT and, because of tiebreakers, ended up as the odd team out of a bye and will play a first-round series this weekend.

RIT -- at No. 3 -- and Mercyhurst -- at No. 4 -- both get first-round byes and get to rest up for the quarterfinals, along with No. 1 seed and regular-season champion Air Force and No. 2 Niagara.

No. 5 Holy Cross faces No. 12 Army in a best-of-three set that starts Friday night in Worcester, Mass., and continues Saturday and, if necessary, on Sunday.

The extra work is fine with the Crusaders.

“If you get a bye, it’s no guarantee you’re going to make a run to Rochester,” said senior defenseman Matt Clune. “And if you don’t get a bye, it’s not the end of the world.”

This weekend’s winners advance to quarterfinal series that will be hosted March 9-11 by Air Force, Niagara, RIT and Mercyhurst. The winners of the quarterfinal series gather at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., for the semifinals and finals on March 16-17.

The other match-ups this weekend have No. 11 Sacred Heart at No. 6 Bentley, No. 10 AIC at No. 7 Robert Morris and No. 9 Canisius at No. 8 Connecticut.

No Atlantic Hockey team is hotter than Holy Cross.

The Crusaders went 7-0-1 in February and are a combined 13-0-3 over the past two Februarys.

“I think our guys believe we’re a pretty good February team,” said coach Paul Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.). “We have a great strength and conditioning coach, and we do some things with rest and otherwise to prepare for February. Even in some of our poorer years, we usually have a good February. Our guys buy into that.”

Last year, Holy Cross moved on to March and eliminated Canisius in the quarterfinals to make it to Rochester. There, the Crusaders fell to Air Force, 3-2, in the semifinals.

Army presents the first challenge.

Holy Cross swept its three games against the Black Knights this season: 4-2, 6-1 and 3-1.

The Crusaders are deep and experienced, and led Atlantic Hockey in scoring this season by averaging 3.12 goals a game overall and 3.44 in league contests.

Sophomore Adam Schmidt had one of three hat tricks in Atlantic Hockey last weekend -- Niagara sophomore Ryan Murphy had one and UConn senior defenseman Brad Cooper, who had not scored all season, the other -- and leads the Crusaders with 15 goals and 17 assists for 32 points. The other nine of the top 10 scorers for Holy Cross are juniors and seniors.

Pearl, who has been going with freshman Matt Ginn in net for the most part, knows his team will have to be ready to play tighter games now.

“You have to win games by a score of 2-1,” he said. “You don’t win 7-5. It just doesn’t happen.”

The Crusaders should be ready for whatever comes, Clune said.

“The margin of error gets so small this time of year,” he said. “It’s always fun this time of year. There’s a little anxiety. You get a little nervous. It feels like the last month and a half we’ve been playing playoff hockey.

Now it doesn’t just feel like it: The Crusaders and Falcons and Huskies and all the rest really are playing playoff hockey.

Games of the Week

Sacred Heart at Bentley Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday

Sacred Heart hopes for a repeat of last year’s first round of the Atlantic Hockey tournament. The Pioneers also went on the road to Bentley last season and knocked off the Falcons, 6-3. The task looms a little taller this year: The first round is no longer a single game and has been changed to a best-of-three series.

Atlantic Hockey power rankings

  1. Air Force (17-9-7, 15-6-6). . . . 3-0 win at Robert Morris on Saturday night clinched first outright Atlantic Hockey regular-season title for Falcons.
  2. Niagara (15-10-9, 14-6-7). . . . Senior Chris Noonan stopped 51 of 53 shots Friday, 22 of 23 on Saturday for three-point weekend vs. RIT.
  3. RIT (17-11-6, 14-7-6). . . . Tigers slip to third seed after getting one point in Niagara series.
  4. Holy Cross (17-13-4, 15-8-4). . . . Tiebreaker puts Crusaders seeded fifth, up against Army in first round.
  5. Mercyhurst (18-14-4, 15-8-4). . . . Senior Max Strang’s 27 saves key 5-0 shutout that brings Lakers the No. 4 seed.
  6. Bentley (13-13-8, 13-7-7). . . . Tied for third after Friday, Falcons slip to sixth with 6-4 loss to Holy Cross. 
  7. Robert Morris (15-14-5, 13-9-5). . . . Senior Ron Cramer’s second goal of the season is an OT winner over Air Force.
  8. UConn (13-17-4, 12-12-3). . . . Cole Schneider-Jordan Sims-Billy Latta line had 5-5-10 totals in sweep at Canisius in mid-January. 
  9. Canisius (10-20-4, 10-14-3). . . . Golden Griffins at UConn in first round; swept by Huskies at home in January.
  10. AIC (7-24-3, 6-18-3). . . . Yellow Jackets finish out of Atlantic cellar for first time.
  11. Sacred Heart (5-26-3, 4-20-3). . . . Pioneers sweep Army to move up a spot and take No. 11 seed; face Bentley.
  12. Army (4-21-7, 3-19-5). . . . Six-game losing streak drops Black Knights into the No. 12 seed and first-round match-up with Holy Cross.

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.