Significant milestones are nearly always cause for celebration. In the case of Holy Cross, the men’s hockey team is coming off 20 victories in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
However, coach Paul Pearl said no one is resting on their laurels. As impressive as that feat is, the Crusaders are looking for more, particularly success in the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
Last spring, Holy Cross lost to Mercyhurst in a tightly-contested best two-out-of three quarterfinal series.
This year, the squad has 20 letter-winners returning, a large sophomore class that is battle-tested, and plenty of leadership.
The preseason coaches’ poll selected Holy Cross to finish eighth out of 12 teams and Pearl said he is just fine with that.
“We keep getting picked [low in the polls] and we keep coming out in the top four so we want to keep that going,’’ said Pearl, in his 19th season at the helm.
One of the hallmarks of the past two seasons has been the Crusaders’ ability to score goals. The defense hasn’t always been the best, but the offense has been consistent.
“In a time when it’s very difficult to score goals in college, we’ve been averaging over three each of those two years and our power play has been very potent,’’ said Pearl, who has led the program to nine of its 11 most successful seasons.
“We’ve been able to, at times, outscore teams, which is a nice luxury to have. It’s not necessarily the way to win your league, which obviously has shown both years too, because we haven’t defended well enough. If you can do something different than other teams, in our case score, you can win some games.’’
One of the reasons the Crusaders struggled on the back line was inexperience.
But those freshman are a year older and Pearl said he has a lot of faith in their growth.
“There is some experience back there but we still need to be better as a team defensively and certainly that’s not just on the [defense], that’s the forwards and the goaltending, too,’’ said Pearl. “We lost four of our top six scorers so we’re probably not in the beginning going to score as much as we have, so we’re going to have to defend better.’’
Junior goaltender Matt Ginn will continue his stellar career. Heading into the season, Ginn ranks second all-time in save percentage at the school (.911), third in goals-against average (2.54), and fourth in victories (36).
“Matt was great for us,’’ said Pearl. “As long as we can do a little better in front of him, I think getting the goals-against average down is a reasonable goal.’’
The Crusaders are still very young. Of the 28 players on the roster, 18 are either freshmen or sophomores, but Pearl said he isn’t focusing on that.
“[Last year’s freshmen] played a ton so I’m going to pull the coaching card and say we’re young, we just are,’’ said Pearl. “We’ve got a good mix of players here.’’
One of the leaders on the team, in addition to captain Ryan McGrath, is senior forward Shayne Stockton.
Stockton had a team-high and career-best 28 points and a career-high 13 goals. Last year, he had a .563 faceoff percentage, second best on the team.
Holy Cross opens on the road against Boston University Saturday night, which will provide a stern test.
“We try to play top teams as much as we possibly can,’’ said Pearl. “This year I think it gets highlighted a little more because our league schedule doesn’t start until November. We have five real good challenges [early in BU, Northeastern twice, and Quinnipiac twice.]’’
One of the highlights will come on Dec. 28 when the Crusaders face Bentley at Fenway Park.
“That will be great,’’ said Pearl. ”That was a long time coming, we’ve been working on that for more than a year. Finally getting it done worked and I think our [alumni] will be really excited. Obviously, Holy Cross has a ton of Worcester/Boston-area alums who I think will all be excited to come out to the game.’’
There has been plenty of shapeshifting in college hockey this season, but Atlantic Hockey is one league that has remained intact. Pearl said that’s because the league was basically formed to include teams that didn’t have a home.
“When the league was first put together, it was a group of schools that were kind of the schools that didn’t have a league to play in,’’ said Pearl. ”Over the years, the administration and different schools and as we’ve added really good schools, it’s become a very stable league.
“There’s an identity to the league now whereas before, there wasn’t. Establishing an identity is first and foremost. People know the league and respect it. We had two teams in the [NCAA] tournament last year and we’ve won some games in the NCAAs and now the next thing is for us to start raising our out-of-league record.
“As schools are able to do that, then it just becomes more and more authentic and more and more respected. We want to keep getting better and better and working our way up.’’