The Atlantic Hockey Association is, in essence, blossoming out of toddlerhood as this season opens. And by fatalistic standards, the Holy Cross Crusaders –who visit the Friars in PC’s home opener Saturday- are due to come out on top again.
So far, Holy Cross owns two of the conference’s four recorded tournament crowns, triumphing in 2004 and 2006, and odd-numbered hiatuses aside, have utilized those crowns on the national platform a little more each time.
“It is hard to win every year because the parity in college hockey is so great,” said Crusader coach Paul Pearl, who used to call Newport County his home when he coached the pucksters of Portsmouth Abbey School.
“Our league is no different. Both of the non-winning years we lost to the eventual champion and I thought both times we were the second best team at that point in the season. Especially in ‘05 when we lost the semis to Mercyhurst in OT and then they went on to win the final, and then lose a one-goal game to (Boston College, 6-5) in the (national) tourney.”
The 10-member “lower class” league was promptly established in 2003 as a shelter for programs that had just lost their auspices from the multi-sport MAAC conference. Under the new heading, the Crusaders nabbed the inaugural AHA tournament, and, in effect, accepted a passport to the NCAA Regionals, though they quickly bowed out to North Dakota.
Rebounding to take the title back from Mercyhurst in 2006, they subsequently pulled off the AHA’s first national highlight that could be seen from space. That, of course, was their 4-3 overtime upset of Minnesota, a team that included now second-year Bruin Phil Kessel.
Going into that tourney opener in Grand Forks, ND, they were strangers from a city that outside media hordes were constantly mispronouncing staring down a cult-followed franchise of Yankee/Cowboy/Les Habitant reverence. In the end, though, you had your alternate ending to Mystery, Alaska.
On top of that, if only for about three hours, the 10,000-plus hospitable Sioux devotees acted as Worcesterians, taking grand pleasure in this downfall of their arch-rival.
Since that night, Holy Cross, and their Atlantic allies, have been gently let down from that cloud nine, though Pearl admitted that that was partially voluntary.
“The Minnesota thing, though a great story, was over the first day of last season,” he said bluntly. “If we dwell on that or try to "pull inspiration," we will be living in the past and not be getting any better. We feel we have a really bright future and are looking forward to that - not looking back.”
Last spring, the Gophers cleansed their Zamboni-weight heartache by abolishing the 2007 Atlantic champion Air Force in the same regional round. The collective trick now for the AHA, which is rumored to have expansion in store what with College Hockey America’s gradual erosion, is to confront the big boys with an attitude of belonging and translate that on the board.
“The Minnesota game was certainly a highlight,” Pearl recalled, “but what we are equally proud of from that season is going 5-2 versus the other conferences. We beat UMass, RPI twice, Dartmouth and Minnesota.
“Holy Cross needs to continue to play well out of league to get national recognition, and in given years, we have. One other factor in that is starting to get some of these games at home. Since our move to Division 1 in 1999 we have only had about 5 percent of our non-league games at home and none against ECAC or Hockey East teams. That changes this year and next, with schools such as Providence coming to our rink.”
This will be the first Friars-Crusaders encounter altogether since November 27, 2004, when PC triumphed 3-1 at Dunkin Donuts Center in the short-lived Coffee Pot Tournament. Holy Cross’ last visit to the House That Lamoriello Built was January 14, 2001, when the Friars claimed a 2-1 decision.
But now, with the foretold upgrade in non-conference showcases, the Crusaders must gear up for a steady climb fueled by a proficient depth chart. And, Pearl offered, starting young always helps.
“I think people would say we have a lot of good players, but no great ones,” he said. “Our philosophy is to play all four lines and six defensemen and try to beat teams with consistency. When we have years with players in new roles, sometimes there is a steep learning curve and we can suffer some growing pains in the regular season while we try to develop cohesion.
“In the early going our top three lines are made up of 4 freshmen, 3 sophomores, a junior and a senior. The sooner the young guys start to score, the sooner we can start winning.”
Only two games are on record as of yet, but that does appear to be happening. Rookie JP Martignetti charged up two helpers, one of them on classmate Joe Brock’s first collegiate goal, in a 6-2 loss to Niagara last Saturday. Goaltender Adam Roy has additionally made an early case to share duties with veterans Ian Dams and Charlie Lockwood.
Grippingly enough, the Friars are similarly banking on replenishment via new blood in their lineup. And so, the tale of two youth groups commences on PC's campus tonight.
This article originally appeared in the Friartown Free Press