By Dan Rubin
Since the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference reorganized into the Atlantic Hockey Association in 2003, it has long been considered the doormat of Division I collegiate hockey. All that changed in the 2010 NCAA tournament, when the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers shocked the institutional landscape with a run to the Frozen Four. This year, RIT is back, leading the charge of a conference still vying for respect amongst its peers.
There will be a new playoff format for the 2011 season with the additions of Niagara University and Robert Morris University to the fold. Following the collapse of College Hockey America’s men’s conference, the AHA expanded to 12 teams and, as such, adapted its postseason schedule. The league split into two “scheduling pods,” with the Purple Eagles and Colonials joining RIT, Canisius, Mercyhurst, and Air Force in the western division. Connecticut, Army, and Sacred Heart joined Massachusetts schools Holy Cross, American International, and Bentley to form the eastern division. Under new scheduling formats, teams played opponents in their own pod three times and opponents in the other pod twice.
When the dust settles on the season, the top two teams in each pod garner first round byes. The remaining four teams then play off in single-elimination formats at campus sites. The winners all advance to a reseeded second round, best-of-three series with all games held at higher-seeded campus sites. The final four then converges on the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, NY for single-elimination semifinal and finals games, with the conference tournament winner earning an automatic bid for the NCAA tournament.
Under this format and under the current standings, RIT clinched the top spot in the conference, first place in the west, a first round bye, and a second round series with the lowest remaining seeded team. That’s all that’s been settled, and we’ll take a look at the local teams and their playoff outlook as the league heads into its final weekend.
Holy Cross: [14-14-4, 13-8-4 in AHA] has the easiest road of the Massachusetts schools, having clinched the top seed in the east and currently sitting tied for 3rd place with 30 points. The Crusaders are also one point back of second-place Robert Morris and will host a second round series when the playoffs reseed. This weekend, they’ll take on eastern-division rival Bentley with the chance to overtake both the Colonials and Air Force. In order to clinch that second seed, the Crusaders will need to win both against the Falcons. RMU plays Air Force in Pittsburgh, so the ideal situation is a weekend split in that series. Holy Cross would still need to sweep the weekend, since they do not hold tie breakers over either Robert Morris or Air Force. My prediction is that Holy Cross finishes the season in 4th place, still earning a first round bye and 2nd round series at the Hart Center in Worcester, MA.
Holy Cross’s opponent mentioned above is the enigmatic Bentley University squad. The Falcons have been very much an up-and-down team, and they’ve split games in each of the last three weekends. But Bentley [10-16-5, 9-12-4 AHA] enters the final weekend of the season with a chance at a first round bye thanks to the scheduling format. Although they’re ensured of a second round series on the road, they ninth-place Falcons have at least clinched a first round series at home while being able to finish no worse than tenth. Bentley will have a close eye on the UConn-AIC series, sitting two points behind the Huskies for the eastern division bye. Bentley won the season series against UConn, so they’ll need at least one win over Holy Cross to have a chance at the bye. With a weekend split of the home-and-home, (Bentley’s home on Saturday), the Falcons would require the 11th-place AIC Yellow Jackets to sweep the Huskies in their own home-and-home. A UConn win requires Bentley to sweep the weekend, and a UConn win coupled with a Bentley loss eliminates the Falcons from bye contention. I’m predicting a weekend split against Holy Cross, a team Bentley beat earlier this year on the road. Bentley will not, however, gain a first round bye and will be home for the single-elimination round.
As a secondary standings hunt, Bentley also sits one point behind 8th place Canisius in the overall standings. The Golden Griffins play rival Mercyhurst, and the Falcons can pass them with at least a win and a Laker sweep. I think this is more plausible, and Bentley will finish 8th overall in the standings.
American International: [7-20-1, 7-17-1 AHA] has the least confusing road to the playoffs. AIC is on the road for the first round, since they’re at least five points back of everybody not named Sacred Heart. The Yellow Jackets have a one point lead for 11th place over the bottom-dweller Pioneers. A tie in one of their games against UConn clinches 11th place and a date with whoever finishes third in the east. The only scenario where AIC doesn’t finish 12th is if they get swept by UConn and Sacred Heart wins one against Army. I don’t know how those are going to play out, but in the interest of realism, AIC finishes 11th.
Now that my head hurts from crunching all these numbers, we’ll do it again tomorrow with a look at the local flavor of ECAC Hockey. We’ll also be back at the end of the week with predictions and a look at the games themselves, which should explain the methods behind this madness.