By Dan Rubin
Conference tournament championship weekend might be the most exciting time for a league. After a year of exhilarating victories and agonizing defeats; last minute comebacks and long night blowouts; expected wins and unexpected upsets, the season comes to a final climax. After this weekend, conference hardware is handed out and the team left standing is the one that carries the torch into the larger, more gloried pool of NCAA competition.
For me, the conference championships were always a thing of beauty. It’s a chance to reflect on the long road of the season, how each team formulated their own story, all with one dream. It’s a chance to sit back and appreciate the long hours of practice, skate sharpening, and smelling of hockey funk that players dedicate over the sometimes cold and harsh winter.
For Atlantic Hockey, the final weekend is the last step for all but one team. In a conference that has never received an at large bid, the last weekend is the chance to bid one team to the NCAA elite while watching 11 others shutter locker rooms for the next seven months. For the AHA, this has been the crowning achievement – until last year’s run to the Frozen Four by RIT, only Holy Cross and Air Force had won an NCAA tournament game. These teams always qualify as the fourth seed in a regional, and even with the Tigers’ run last season, the level of talent from top to bottom widely fails to compare with storied East Coast programs in Hockey East and ECAC.
So this weekend represents the last time that each of the four remaining teams will be a storied team, right before the squad left standing puts on an underdog sweater and attempts a run at the big boys of college hockey. It also represents the perfect microcosm of AHA hockey – two conference giants taking two teams that dared to dream big. This is the first of our series as we preview the Final Four of the eastern conferences and gear up for the final step towards NCAA immortality.
#1 RIT Tigers
How They Got Here: [18-10-8], [15-5-7 AHA], Swept AIC, [5-0, 5-1]
Why They’ll Win: RIT is the new king of Atlantic Hockey. After Air Force dominated the league in its first years after leaving College Hockey America, the Tigers assumed the mantle with last year’s 28-win, Frozen Four season. They’ve been dominant since joining AHA in 2006-2007, and they’ve had only three losing seasons since 1990. One of those losing seasons came in their first year in Division I, when they were a program in transition and an independent. RIT has the best program top to bottom, and they boast a win over Cornell. They hung with Merrimack, and they did it with a young roster. The majority of their team is juniors, and Tyler Brenner had 41 points (26 of which were goals). Shane Madolora posted six shutouts in net, and he saved over 93% of shots faced (oh…and he’s a sophomore). This is the same core that eked out a one-goal win over Denver in last year’s tournament before throttling UNH to get to Detroit. Plus, the conference championship is held in Rochester, so it’s pretty much home ice.
Why They’ll Lose: Outside of Cornell, there are no marquee wins. They hung with Merrimack, but they didn’t win. They lost to RPI, and they were throttled by Union. Luckily, they draw UConn in the first round, a team they swept back in November by 6-2 and 5-3 scores at home. And, they beat and tied Holy Cross in late January. But all signs are pointing towards an RIT-Air Force finals (assuming top seeds win). Dating back to when RIT joined the Atlantic Hockey, Air Force leads their series by one game – the 2008 AHA Championship. The Academy is pretty much the only thing stopping RIT from another date with the dance.
#2 Air Force Falcons
How They Got Here: [18-11-6], [14-7-6 Atlantic Hockey], Swept Sacred Heart [7-5, 4-0]
Why They’ll Win: No team carries an aura and a mystique quite like Air Force. Maybe it’s because they dominated the league in their first three years, winning back-to-back-to-back titles. Maybe it’s because their non-conference schedule routinely ranks as the toughest in the conference. And maybe it’s because road trips take teams at least 2,000 miles across the country to the Rocky Mountains. Beyond that, they’re a good team. They beat Yale, 4-3, and their first win of the season was a 12-0 pasting of AIC. They have five double-digit goal scorers, led by Jacques Lamoureux’s [21-20-41] totals. Derrick Burnett posted 26 assists, and there’s already a new group of young scorers ready to assume the mantle. They replaced all-everything goaltender Andrew Volkening with Jason Torf, and the freshman won 62% of his 30 starts. The Falcons are the kings of the one-goal game, going [10-2] in that stat.
Why They’ll Lose: It’s not that the rest of the league caught up with Air Force; after four years in AHA, Air Force finally lost many of the players that were recruited to compete with Findlay, Wayne State, and Bemidji State. Their record has steadily declined as those players gradually left the school. They went from [21-12-6] and [28-11-2] at their height to [16-15-6] a year ago. They rebounded this year to win those 18 games, but this is an Air Force team that is beatable. Torf is a freshman, untested in the playoffs. That could haunt them, especially against a Holy Cross team in the semifinals that has been (pardon the pun) possessed the last few weeks. Yes, they swept Sacred Heart, but the Pioneers were the 12 seed until the final weekend of the season, and Air Force surrendered give goals to them in Game 1. In their 7-6 win over Holy Cross, it took a goaltending change from Torf to Stephen Caple in the third period to lead the Falcons back from a 6-4 deficit. Lamoureux scored the winning goal with one second on the clock. They can’t rely on that this time around.
#3 Holy Cross Crusaders
How They Got Here: [17-15-5], [14-8-5 Atlantic Hockey], Beat Canisius 2 games to 1 [6-3, 2-3, 7-3]
Why They’ll Win: One mad dash third period comeback at Air Force early in the season was the difference between the third seed and the second seed. They’re the only eastern scheduling pod team to be this good, and they’re legit. They’re on a 13-out-of-14 non-loss streak, with the only loss being Game 2 of the playoffs. They went [8-0-3] in their final 11 regular season games, and they did it in convincing style. Throw away the season finale where Bentley made an amazing comeback on them, and this might be the best team in the league at the end. They have four double-digit goal scorers, of which only one is a senior. Everett Sheen, Rob Linsmayer, and Kyle Fletcher paced the team up front with a combined 45 goals. Adam Roy played the majority of time in net, and the senior posted two shutouts. He also is well rested, having stopped only 68 shots in the entire first round series against the Griffins.
Why They’ll Lose: There’s a severe lack of a marquee win. They beat Northeastern in overtime, but they lost to Quinnipiac, Providence, and Bowling Green. Let’s not even mention when Yale took them behind the woodshed in a 10-3 defeat or the 6-0 loss to Wisconsin. Plus, the team played the majority of their games against bad teams. They played three games apiece against Army, Bentley, Sacred Heart, and AIC – the worst four teams in the league. They drew the next worst team in the playoffs. That’s hardly a Murderer’s Row, and the fact that they choked away that last game against Bentley and lost a one-goal game in OT in the playoffs is cause for minor concern in a place where one-goal games are most prevalent.
#6 Connecticut Huskies
How They Got Here: [15-17-4], [13-12-2 AHA], swept Mercyhurst [5-2, 4-3]
Why They’ll Win: Act of God. I’m not trying to take away from UConn’s season because they clearly did something right if they made it this far. But the other three teams are good. UConn is average and lucky. I know the saying says, “Better lucky than good,” but they barely went over .500 in conference play, didn’t go .500 overall, and they played the same mediocre teams that Holy Cross did. If they’re going to win, they’re going to have to muck it up on RIT. They’ll need to play physical, slow the game pace down, and make it a slopfest. They went [2-6-3] against western pod teams, but they just ousted Mercyhurst in convincing fashion. They also got their losing streak out of their system. Statistically, Cole Schneider and Seam Ambrosie led the way, and Andrew Olson notched 14 goals. Garrett Bartus saved over 1,000 shots this year, and if UConn hopes to win, he’ll need to play Herculean.
Why They’ll Lose: They’re just not good enough to win this conference. Their defense disappears for long stretches of games, which forced Bartus to face an average of 35 shots per game. He faced 35-plus shots 15 times this year, and he made 50 saves (!!!) twice, including a win over Niagara in December and the series-clincher last weekend against the Lakers. While that’s great for him that’s a bad day for the defense. In fact, that’s very bad. And that’s not even against the top three teams in the league, of which they’ll face at least the best of on Friday.
Check back later this week for the preview of the ECAC and Hockey East. And also remember to stay tuned this weekend, when I force Dan Libon to wear a Boston College Superfan shirt for our Hockey East coverage this weekend. That’s right Libon – I’m a Boston College fan, and I’m calling you out right here in print.
See you later this week, folks, and enjoy your Hump Day Wednesday!