By Dan Rubin
The last weekend of the season didn’t disappoint for Atlantic Hockey. With seeding and playoff positioning hanging in the balance, teams came through in a big way while others slid down the playoff standings.
Bentley lost to Holy Cross on Friday, and then trailed for 50 minutes of Saturday’s game at home. But Bentley battled back to tie, with senior Jeremy Robert, who played only sparingly during the regular season to this point, scoring with his net empty. They gained a point, but they needed a win to get the nine-seed. So, despite the comeback, Bentley slid to the 10-spot. The tie cost the Crusaders a chance at the #2-seed, since a win would’ve potentially moved them ahead of Air Force. The one-point weekend for Bentley cost them a) a first-round bye, b) a chance at a quarterfinals series at home depending on how the first round decisions fared, and c) the top seed of first round eastern division teams.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris entered the weekend entrenched as that two-seed, needing one win over Air Force to sew up that slot. Instead, they got swept by Air Force, falling not only out of the two but into the lowest seeded home slot in the western division, going from two to five, where they now host seventh-seeded Mercyhurst. By virtue of the four point weekend, Air Force managed to a) get a first round bye, b) sew up the second seed, and c) guarantee a quarterfinals series against a low-seeded team that won’t want to make a 2,000 mile journey west.
Sacred Heart, meanwhile, took a surprise game from Army on the season’s last day to vault one point over AIC. That sets up a rematch in the first round of an 8-2, Sacred Heart shellacking victory over Bentley from earlier this year, where both teams could have finished easily nowhere near each other in the standings. AIC was swept by Connecticut, giving the Huskies the bye and the Yellow Jackets the basement.
And with that, we’ll take a look at some of the rest of the final weekend games, as we preview the AHA Playoffs.
Teams with Byes and Final Seeds
RIT wins the regular season crown and #1 seed in the playoffs. Air Force garners the #2 seed and first round bye in the west. Meanwhile, Holy Cross gains the #3 seed and a first round bye, while Connecticut finishes second in the east, earning a bye as the #6 seed. Despite their bye, the Huskies are on the road in the second round when the final ten reseed, unless either Robert Morris or Niagara loses their first round game.
#8 Canisius Golden Griffins at #4 Niagara Purple Eagles
Head to Head: 11/2/2010 at Canisius – Niagara 6-5 (OT); 2/17/2011 at Canisius – Niagara 3-0; 2/18/2011 at Niagara – Canisius 6-3
Tale of the Tape: The road team won every meeting between the two teams this year, with the Purple Eagles getting the head-to-head advantage. Niagara also enters this game with the top two leading scorers in the league. Paul Zanette and Brian Haczyk scored 29 and 27 goals respectively. Zanette also finished second in Division I with just over 1.5 points per game. So Dan Morrison is going to have his work cut out for him in net for the Golden Griffins. Morrison ranks 11th in the conference in save percentage, but he also averages over three goals per game allowed. That differs greatly from the platoon of Chris Noonan and Cody Campbell. Noonan ranks 6th among netminders in the league, but he only appeared in 13 games.
X-Factor of the Weekend: For Canisius, it’s Cory Conacher. This is Conacher’s swan song after playoff disappointments in each of the last three seasons. He scored 18 goals this season to lead Canisius, where nobody else scored 10. He has 61 career strikes and 141 career points. In a one-game series, he’ll need to match Zanette and Haczyk almost single-handedly.
Prediction: Conacher’s a great talent and rightfully deserving of Hobey Baker mention, even if he shouldn’t win the award. But it’s a case of Niagara and the old CHA being too strong. 4-1 Niagara.
#7 Mercyhurst Lakers at #5 Robert Morris Colonials
Head To Head: 11/19/2010 at RMU – Mercyhurst, 3-1; 1/11/11 at RMU – RMU 3-2 ; 1/12/11 at Mercyhurst – T 4-4
Tale of the Tape: Most evenly matched game of the weekend. RMU averaged 3.3 goals per game and allowed an average of 2.67. Mercyhurst averaged 3.63 and allowed 2.96. In their three meetings, only once did a team outshoot its opponent by more than three. And in that game, RMU outshot Mercyhurst 51-23…and lost. Both teams have goal scorers – Scott Pitt and Paul Chiasson for Mercyhurst and Nathan Longpre and Adam Brace for Robert Morris. Both teams have goaltenders – Senior Ryan Zapolski has 100 career starts and 106 career appearances for Mercyhurst, while junior Brooks Ostergard has 74 career games and 63 career starts for RMU. Both goalies have save percentages this season well over 90%
X-Factor: At this point, it’s coaching. Derek Schooley is the only head coach Robert Morris has ever known in its short history. This is the first over-.500 season for the team in their first year in AHA. Rick Gotkin has been here before, piloting Mercyhurst since the program’s 2nd season of Division III hockey in 1988. He’s also taken the team to three NCAA Division I tournaments, most recently in 2005. In 2009, Mercyhurst upset RIT in the conference final four, only to lose to Air Force. Plus, he’s a really nice guy.
Prediction: Hockey’s a funny sport. Some teams just know how to win in the playoffs. Mercyhurst is one of those teams. 3-2 Lakers
#12 American International Yellow Jackets at #9 Army Black Knights
Head-to-Head: 11/19/10 at Army – Army 9-3; 1/18/11 at Army – Army 6-4; 1/19/11 at AIC – Army 4-1
Tale of the Tape: AIC is a bad program that plays everyone tough. They beat Air Force, swept a weekend at Mercyhurst, beat RIT at home, and crushed Bentley on the road. But they were swept by the Knights (allowing 19 goals in the process), and they followed up their win at Air Force with a whopping 12-0 loss. They give up a lot of goals. Army beat UMass, Niagara, Air Force, and RMU. With a win, they go to Air Force. They’re probably the only team salivating at the chance to make that trip since intra-service bragging rights are involved, and there’s no Navy in D1 hockey. An AIC win sends them to RIT.
X-Factor: Which AIC team shows up? I have no idea how they went [7-22-1] and [7-19-1] in conference. I still can’t figure out how they beat RIT, Air Force, and Mercyhurst. But I watched them beat Bentley into submission. They deserve better than the 12-seed.
Prediction: If AIC were playing Bentley, I’d actually consider teasing them for a win. I’ve made stranger picks. But Army has the Jackets’ number. My heart wants AIC to win, but my logic says 5-0 Army.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Bentley-Sacred Heart breakdown as we get you set for the local team’s march towards the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.