Crusading Back to AHA Final
by Ken Belbin/CHN Correspondent
WORCESTER, Mass. Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl knew he and his Crusaders might have their hands full with an upstart Connecticut squad that was embarking on its first trip to the Atlantic Hockey Association's Final Four.
Coming off a 4-1 upset of third-seeded Sacred Heart in last week's quarterfinals, the No. 6 seed Huskies eventually succumbed to the Crusaders, but, despite finishing 11-23-2 overall, earned the respect of Pearl and his staff in the process after a hard-fought 4-1 decision that delivered Holy Cross (25-9-2) back into the tourney final after a one-year layoff.
Holy Cross, which continues to set a program record for wins in a season, was the superior club but UConn hung with the Crusaders throughout, actually finishing with a 38-29 shots-on-goal advantage including a 13-6 margin in the first period and an 18-11 mark in the third.
"We didn't play our best hockey in the first period," said Pearl, whose club won the first AHA title in 2004 over Sacred Heart. "But the second and third period — that's definitely how we wanted to play. We were more thorough on the puck and didn't turn it over so much."
Holy Cross was clearly more assertive in the final two periods, finishing plays and making more quality shots. That focus would pay off with two second period scores after the teams were knotted 1-1 after one.
"I think we played with some good energy in the first period," said Huskies coach Bruce Marshall. "In the second period we seemed to get away a little bit from where we were in the first. We weren't forechecking well, and then they added a power-play and shorthanded goal and that took the wind out of our sails."
That wind loss can be credited to the likes of Crusaders junior forward James "Bubba" Sixsmith. The Alexandria, Va., native and former Canterbury School standout potted both a power-play and shorthanded score just 1:35 apart in the early going of the second to put the Purple ahead for good.
Sixsmith deflected praise to fellow linemate and junior forward Sean Nappo, who finished with two assists. Nappo set up Sixsmith's power play tally in the second and later set up senior forward Pierre Naper-Franette, who iced it with 6:29 to play. According to his linemate, Nappo does all the little things pivotal to success.
"Sean is the type of player who does a lot of the things that don't show up on the stat sheet," said Sixsmith. "He doesn't get enough credit. He sits in front on the power play and even though he's not the biggest guy he's tough. He's always getting cross-checked, getting abused, but everyone on the team appreciates what he does for us."
"I think it's probably the best game he's played all season," added Pearl. "For not a big kid (6-0, 175), he plays that ‘big kid' role."
UConn had its chances on special teams, but couldn't break through despite six power-play opportunities, including a pivotal 5-on-3 advantage that consumed the final minute of the second period and first minute of the third. The momentum was clearly on the Crusaders' side from that point on.
"From there they played a little tighter and little harder and even though we still had some chances, their guys made plays at the right time," said Campbell.
Marshall was both thoughtful and optimistic following the loss — not only for the team's semifinal performance, but for the Huskies future. Marshall was sure to point out his optimism particularly for next season as a plethora of juniors will easily recall their first taste of an AHA Final Four.
"We have a tremendous junior class and that helps take a little of the sting off this loss," said Marshall.
Marshall also noted that for his squad to reach the semifinals when, just a short time before, his program was suffering through a 12-game losing streak, speaks volumes for the program and the maturation of his players.
"If you look at our season, we went through a 12-game losing streak," Campbell concluded. "People say it takes a lot of character to win, but during that streak we never had anyone not wanting to come to the rink. Our players wanted to get better and still play for a championship. I think there is character to be found in that."
On the other side, Sixsmith was also sure to point out that a return trip not only to the AHA title game but to the NCAA Tournament remains goal number one for him and his teammates.
"We had high hopes last year but losing (to Mercyhurst 4-3 in an overtime semifinal) gave us motivation all year from preseason right up through now. We have a goal of winning the championship and that has not changed."