Atlantic Hockey Final Four Preview

The Tigers maybe number one, but can they win the Final Four?

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!

Rubin: Can the Falcons Fly this Post-Season?

By Dan Rubin

Charles Dickens never picked up a hockey stick, laced up skates, or even knew that a Bentley University would ever exist in Waltham, MA.  He surely never set foot in the John A. Ryan Skating Arena.  And he never intended any of his writings to come back to a college sports event.

But this season has been the best of times and worst of times for the Bentley Falcons.  They opened up the year with wins over Northeastern, Holy Cross, and Canisius.  They had a record [5-6-1], including [4-3-1] in conference play.  Then they went two months without a win.  They tied and lost games they should’ve won, including an overtime defeat to Air Force, a tie with Robert Morris, and a tie with RIT.  They bottomed out on January 21st, when they were embarrassed on home ice with an 8-2 loss to Mercyhurst.

Although they’ve leveled off from the season’s high and low, they remain an enigma.  There’s the weekend battle with Army, where they took three points in a goalie matchup for the ages featuring freshman Brandon Komm.  And there’s the gritty 4-2 win over Connecticut.  But there’s also the Sacred Heart game they led 3-1 and lost 6-3.  And there’s there loss to AIC by a 5-1 tally.  They haven’t swept a weekend since the first full weekend of AHA games.  But they haven’t been swept since New Year’s Eve, when they lost two games they could’ve (and in one case, should’ve) won.

The best part of the playoffs is that it’s a fresh slate.  Sure the Falcons are in the first round without a bye, but they were in bye contention until the final weekend of the regular season.  And they’re at home, taking on a team they beat twice.  Despite a bad loss to the Pioneers, Bentley crushed them in the beginning of the year, and they beat the Pioneers on the road.  So all that remains is to try to determine which Bentley team shows up.  The Road To Rochester starts here…

#11 Sacred Heart Pioneers at #10 Bentley Falcons

Goaltending Matchup: Sacred Heart will send either Steven Legatto or Olivier St. Onge into netminding duties.  They’ve split time because neither man had a very good year.  Legatto is averaging a shade under five goals per game.  St. Onge is averaging a shade under four.  Neither man stopped 90% of the shots this year, and neither won more than three games.  Bentley will counter with either Komm, Kyle Rank, or senior Joe Calvi.  Komm battled injury woes before playing out of his mind against Army.  After that weekend, though, he’s slipped, finishing the year with a [1-5-1] record.  Calvi saw the most time and was the most consistent, but he was the backstop of games in both games Bentley gave up eight goals.  Rank worked his way back into the starting role by process of elimination.  He stopped 37 and 31 in wins over AIC and Connecticut late in the year.  All three goalies allow an average of three goals per game.  Let’s face it – this isn’t exactly a pitcher’s duel-type matchup.  But, nevertheless, if Bentley’s goalies are hot, they can shut teams down.  Advantage: Bentley

Forwards: Playoff hockey is about being able to skate your top lines better than the other team’s top lines.  Having a great top and second line can win games.  Evan Mladenoff, Patrick Knowlton, Matt Gingera, and Eric Delong all skate on the top two lines for Sacred Heart. Gingera has 16 goals on the season, and Delong and Mladenoff have nine apiece.  Knowlton has 17 assists, while Delong has 18.  Bentley counters with a top line of Erik Peterson-Dustin Cloutier-Brett Gensler.  Peterson and Gensler have ten goals apiece, and Cloutier has a team high 14 assists.  Cloutier also has six points in the last seven games.  Aaron Stonacek also saw time with the first line, but he primarily skates with Joe Campanelli on the second line.

Normally, at this point, I’d say how the third line will be a gamebreaker for Bentley, since Jamie Nudy, Dan Koudys, and Brett Hartung will spot the top two lines a breather.  They’ll soften up Sacred Heart’s top two just enough to let their own top lines do some damage.  But David Berube, Chad Filteau, and Kyle Verbeek can do the same for the Pioneers.  Advantage: Push

Defensemen: Bentley’s defensemen do a wonderful job of playing instigator roles.  Mike Switzer amassed 34 PIM on his own on December 3 against Robert Morris.  He has 114 on the season, along with 3-7-10 totals.  Ryan Kayfes had 30 PIM during that same RMU game, amassing 80-plus this season.  They’re a devastating pair to have on the ice, and they headline a Bentley defensive unit that is top to bottom solid.  Zach Marginsky stands 6-6, and Trent Bonnett has been a stalwart.  Zach Ledford pairs with Micah Williams for a third solid unit.  Sacred Heart counters with Mitchell Stretch, Neil Fachini, and a pupu platter of decent but not overpowering defensemen.   Advantage: Bentley

Special Teams: During their first game, I used the term “the extremely movable force meets the extremely stoppable object” to describe the Pioneers PK against the Bentley PP.  The Pioneers killed at a D1-worst 69.3%, while Bentley ended at a conference-worst 8.8% powerplay unit.  But the Bentley powerplay has looked very good at times, especially when one considers they were under 6% as late as February 1st.  Bentley’s penalty kill is a better than average 85%, slotting them in third in the conference.  The Sacred Heart powerplay is 11th, ahead of only that Bentley man-up.  Advantage: Bentley

I won’t get into coaching comparisons because, well, quite franky, I don’t like them.  Coaching styles are so different that the comparisons don’t do any justice, and it really depends on the right players in the right system.  There’s no telling what might happen if you plop Bentley’s players into the RIT system and vice-versa.  All I know is that this Bentley team has been waiting patiently for the right time to break out.  It seems like they just never got over the hump.  Sacred Heart, meanwhile, is a team that was truly snakebitten by the bad karma bus when it came to winning games.  They’re a good team with a lot of positives, but, at this stage of the game, I’m going with Bentley, 5-3.  Make sure to check this one out, since Atlantic Hockey games are typically fast paced and truly exciting.  Be there at 7:05 PM from the old barn on Paramount Place when these teams lock up.  It’s sure to be a good one.

Down The Stretch They Come: Atlantic Hockey Edition

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.