Four teams, one dream. For Atlantic Hockey, a one-bid league (Air Force is 28th in the PairWise Rankings, Niagara 29th and Rochester Institute of Technology tied for 30th), the NCAA tournament started two weeks ago with 12 teams playing down to a single chance to be one of 16 more.
Four remain, and all battled hard last weekend to get to Rochester. Three of the four quarterfinal series came down to a Game 3. RIT faced two elimination games and needed double overtime against Bentley in Game 2 to play on. Air Force had to come from behind in Game 3 to advance. And Niagara, while sweeping Robert Morris, did so on a goal with 15 seconds to play in Game 2.
Mercyhurst is making its first trip to Blue Cross Arena since 2009; Niagara its first ever after joining the league last season. Air Force has been to Rochester all six times since joining Atlantic Hockey, winning the championship four times, including last season. RIT has been eligible for the AHA postseason for the past five seasons, and has made it to Blue Cross Arena every time, winning the title in 2010.
Air Force and Mercyhurst will square off in the early game on Friday. The Lakers took two of three from the Falcons this season, including a wild weekend in Colorado Springs when Air Force thumped Mercyhurst 8-0 on Friday but saw the Lakers earn the split with a 2-1 win the next night.
Air Force coach Frank Serratore has been playing goaltender roulette lately, pulling Jason Torf in favor of Stephen Caple twice last weekend and then giving Caple the start in the deciding game against Connecticut. Lakers goalie Max Strang continues to be on his game, allowing five goals in three games against Holy Cross in the quarterfinals, including a 41-save performance in a 3-1 win in Sunday’s deciding game.
The Falcons were expected to be here; the Lakers were not based on the preseason coaches’ poll, which had them projected to finish seventh. Instead, they finished two points out of first place thanks to the emergence of senior goaltender Strang and a super rookie class that has six newcomers with double-digit points, including Mercyhurst’s three top scorers.
Niagara and RIT are tied closely by history and geography. The schools are only 85 miles apart, and the only two coaches in Purple Eagles history are both former RIT players. Current coach Dave Burkholder just saw his school record of 12 career shutouts broken on Sunday by RIT goaltender Shane Madolora, who recorded his 13th in a 3-0 blanking of Bentley in the deciding game of their quarterfinal series.
The rest of the history centers on the Tigers’ inability to defeat the Purple Eagles since moving to Division I in 2005. Niagara is 7-0-4 against RIT since then. Including a long break between 1997 and 2005 when the teams didn’t play, Niagara is reporting that as of Friday’s game it will be 5,882 days since the Tigers defeated the Purple Eagles (Feb. 8, 1996).
This season Niagara was 1-0-2 against RIT, including a 0-0 tie in early October and a 2-2 game to close out the regular season.
The year of the goalie
Last season was the year of the forward in Atlantic Hockey, with each team having at least one or two big-time snipers. There were nine players with 30 or more points in conference play last season and 40 with at least 20 points. This season we have three 30-point scorers and only 26 players with 20 or more, including seven with exactly 20.
Only two players are graduating this season with 100 career points: RIT’s Cameron Burt has 138 with at least one game left to play and Sacred Heart’s Matt Gingera finished with 109. Army’s Mike Hull came close with 99.
That means it was a season for the goalies to shine. Four have goals against averages under 2.00 and there are seven with save percentages above .930. Last year RIT’s Madolora won the save percentage award going away with a .935, which was .012 higher than anyone else in the league. This season he was even better at .939, but that was good enough for just a three-way tie for third place.
Niagara’s Chris Noonan leads the conference with a .947 save percentage and his .944 overall percentage leads the nation. Madolora is fifth nationally (.932) while Robert Morris’ Brooks Ostergard is tied for eighth (.928). In all, AHA goalies make up seven of the top 20 nationally in save percentage.
The number of superb goalies, as well as a big crop of talented rookie forwards, made it especially tough this year to pick winners of the USCHO.com AHA awards. The official ones will be announced Thursday night, and this is written before that announcement. Here are my picks:
All-AHA first team
F Brett Gensler, so., Bentley
F Kyle DeLaurell, jr., Air Force
F Cole Schneider, so., Connecticut
D Tim Kirby, sr., Air Force
D Scott Mathis, jr., Air Force
G Chris Noonan, sr., Niagara
All-AHA second team
F Matt Gingera, sr., Sacred Heart
F John Kruse, jr., Air Force
F Adam Schmidt, so., Holy Cross
D Alex Gerke, jr., Connecticut
D Chris Haltigin, sr., RIT
G Shane Madolora, sr., RIT
All-AHA third team
F Michael Colavecchia, so., RIT
F Cody Crichton, sr., Robert Morris
F Adam Pleskach, jr. American International
D Trent Bonnett, sr., Bentley
D Adam McKenzie, so., Air Force
G Jason Torf, so., Air Force
Honorable mention: Maurice Alvarez (Army), Nielsson Arcibal (AIC), Cameron Burt (RIT), Andrew Cox (Holy Cross), Kyle Gibbons (Canisius), Mike Hull (Army), Nick Jones (Mercyhurst), Branden Komm (Bentley), Trevor Lewis (Robert Morris), Greg Noyes (RIT), Brandon Nunn (Holy Cross), Brooks Ostergard (Robert Morris), Max Strang (Mercyhurst), Marc Zanette (Niagara).
F Alex Grieve, Bentley
F Chris Lochner, Niagara
F Cody Wydo, Robert Morris
D Tyler Shiplo, Mercyhurst
D Tyson Wilson, Robert Morris
G Matt Ginn, Holy Cross
Honorable mention: Daniel Bahntge (Mercyhurst), Chris Bodo (Mercyhurst), Chad Demers (Air Force), Drew George (Sacred Heart), Cole Gunner (Air Force), Brian Sheehan (Sacred Heart), Brett Switzer (Bentley), Steve Weinstein (Bentley), Nardo Nagtzaam (Mercyhurst).
Player of the year: Tim Kirby, Air Force
Rookie of the year: Matt Ginn, Holy Cross
Coach of the year: Rick Gotkin, Mercyhurst
All but a single set of seniors will have played their last games by this Saturday evening. Let’s take a look at who is moving on:
Air Force (four seniors): This class won two regular season titles (sharing one of them), two playoff championships and is in the hunt for a third. Senior defensemen Scott Mathis and Tim Kirby are in a class by themselves, amassing 165 points so far between them. Forward Paul Weisgarber is a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award and goalie Stephen Caple has played in 23 games this season after seeing action in 13 prior to this year.
American International (four seniors): This class got the Yellow Jackets out of the basement in the standings for the first time in league history and took Robert Morris to the brink in this year’s playoffs. Nielsson Arcibal (83 career points) and Michael Penny (68) were second and third in scoring this season for AIC.
Army (10 seniors): This class was never able to make it to Blue Cross Arena, but included Marcel Alvarez — a two time AHA all-star on defense and Mike Hull, who finished with 99 career points.
Bentley (seven seniors): This group made the AHA semifinals its rookie season and was part of the rebuilding process that saw the Falcons come close to returning. While most of the contributions on the scoreboard were made by underclassmen, players like Jamie Nudy, Ryan Kayfes and Trent Bonnett brought plenty of intangibles.
Canisius (two seniors): Only two players are leaving, but they’ll be missed. Captain Scott Moser had 59 career points and goaltender Dan Morrison played in 96 games, making 2,829 saves, a school career record.
Connecticut (five seniors): This class posted two of the most successful seasons in a decade at UConn and was part of the team that made the AHA semifinals last season. On a team dominated by underclassmen, captain Marcello Ranallo finished with 66 career points.
Holy Cross (nine seniors): The Holy Cross senior class played in an AHA semifinal in 2011. Their 19 wins this season were the most since 2006. The Crusaders are losing four senior defensemen who combined for 63 points this season: Mike Daly, Matt Clune, Kyle Atkins and Matt Davis. Forward Andrew Cox was second on the team with a career-high 33 points.
Mercyhurst (four seniors): Goaltender Max Strang has played in 33 games this season after just 10 appearances his first three years. Derek Elliott has 63 career points so far while Kevin Noble has 51.
Niagara (three seniors): This class played two seasons in the AHA and their first two in the CHA. They will end with at least a semifinal finish and came within a point of the regular season title this year. Chris Noonan has had a spectacular season, posting a 1.59 goals against average and a Division I-leading .944 save percentage.
RIT (eight seniors): This class was sophomores during RIT’s run to the Frozen Four in 2010 and many made major contributions, including Cameron Burt, who is the all-time career points leader in the school’s D-I era (138 points and counting). All three captains are senior defensemen and goaltender Shane Madolora holds the career records for shutouts (13) at any Division level for the Tigers.
Robert Morris (10 seniors): The large class, which won more games than any other class in school history, is led by Brooks Ostergard (.928 save percentage this season). Trevor Lewis and Cody Crichton shared the team lead in scoring with 29 points each. The RMU penalty kill, which was best in the nation most of the season, will be losing six senior forwards.
Sacred Heart (four seniors): The Pioneers’ main loss will be captain Matt Gingera, who had a career-high 33 points this season and ended with 109 career points.
Goodnight and good luck
This column will be signing off for the season, but I’ll still be blogging and writing from the Atlantic Hockey championships and the Frozen Four.
This is my sixth season covering the league for USCHO.com, and my 13th overall with the site. I’ve continued to see both USCHO.com and Atlantic Hockey grow and improve each season. It’s been a privilege.
Thanks as always to players, coaches and sports information directors for taking time to talk to me, win or lose. Special thanks to Dave Rourke at the league office for his information and insight.
Kudos and thanks to my fellow writers, editors and broadcasters, especially Todd Milewski and Paula Weston at USCHO.com, Gene Battaglia and Mark Fragale at Sportszone Live and the WITR crew of Ed Trefzger, Scott Biggar, Nick Phalen and Taylor Osmunson. The roadies were fun, and your emails kept me sane. And no, Gene, I’m still not going to wear makeup. I know I have a face for radio. It’s not gonna help.
As always, thanks to my wife Kathleen, who has been a hockey widow going on 22 years now. Most weekend nights from October to April the only time she sees or hears from me is on the radio or TV. How she puts up with me is a mystery I hope I never solve.
And lastly, thanks to you, dear reader. Atlantic Hockey may not be the biggest league with the largest fan base, but you are dedicated and love your hockey as much as anyone. Thanks for reading.