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Canisius players celebrate a third period goal in a 3-1 win at RIT (Omar Phillips)
Canisius players hope to be celebrating this coming weekend (photo: Omar Phillips).

While there rarely sits a shortage of playoff storylines heading into a championship weekend, it feels like the 2017 Atlantic Hockey championship is a certified soap opera.

With three games remaining to whittle four teams down to the final roster hoisting a trophy, there’s a certain panache that is felt as opposed to defined.

The weekend is comprised of the top four finishers in the regular season for the first time in five years. Though that happened in 2012, you’d have to go back to 2011, before the first round was made up of best-of-three series, to find when the No. 1 and No. 2 teams decided the championship.

Fourth-seeded Robert Morris plays top-seeded Canisius. RMU is in its fourth straight trip to Rochester, the last two years as regular-season champions that failed to win the tournament crown. Three years ago, the Colonials won the championship as the No. 5 seed, defeating – you guessed it – Canisius.

The Golden Griffins, meanwhile, are back after missing out on the semifinals a year ago. The regular-season champions, they’re looking to become the first top seed to win the league championship since Air Force did it in that 2011-12 season. They’re also the team that could, if the cards fall a specific way, give Atlantic Hockey two bids to the national tournament.

What of those Falcons? They have five conference tournament championships since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2006, but they all came in a six-year stretch. They haven’t hung a banner since ’12, and despite being the second-place team, they’re considered by many to be the favorite.

But if they’re going to win the championship, they’re going to need to first go through their longtime service academy rival. Army West Point is back in the show for the second straight year, a now-powerhouse team that’s not just happy to be there but looking to do something that hasn’t been done since Holy Cross in 2006 – give Atlantic Hockey an “eastern” champion.

With all of the storylines in place, there’s a certain electricity to the matchups, especially when considering that the Air Force-Army West Point series, the only two Division I military service academies, will determine who plays for a conference championship.

But if you ask any of the coaches, it’s all just a bump standing in the way of what’s awarded on Saturday.

“We want a championship, and we can’t look at it any other way, regardless of the opponent,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We know Air Force fans circle the game against Army every year, but right now, that aspect is probably more important to military fans than it is the to the teams. If we want to win a championship, this game is nothing more than a conduit to get us there, and we have to win to achieve that goal. The hardest thing to do is end somebody’s season.”

“We know that, at this point, the game is going to be tough, no matter who we play,” Army West Point head coach Brian Riley added. “I’m sure at some point, the rivalry with Air Force will always be there, but for us, it only just validates that it will be tough for us to get to Saturday, which is ultimately our goal.”

The looming shadow of a championship game on Saturday is what drives teams at this point since they’re standing on the verge of potentially earning the league’s automatic bid to the national tournament. But where they survived grueling best-of-three series, they’re now heading for one game, winner-take-all scenarios, where anything is likely to happen.

“You get a bad call or run into a hot goalie, and your season is over,” Serratore said. “Anything can happen, and it can end in a hurry. That’s what it’s about it this point – move on or it’s over in a hurry. We’re really glad to be here, but we know there’s a challenge in front of us. Like I told our guys – we will finish this year with the fewest losses of any Air Force program I’ve coached. We’re tied for most road wins. Those are cool things.

“And they don’t mean anything if we can’t win a championship.”

“I’ve seen some things through the years, where a fluky goal or a bad bounce can cost you,” noted Riley. “You have to be ready for it all. My job is to just ride that roller coaster and make sure we don’t get too high or too low because you can’t let anything negative affect your team at this stage. We’ve been in situations where we’ve won third games, and we’ve won overtime games, but last year, when we made it, our goal was just to get here and the bright lights overwhelmed us a little bit. This year, our goal wasn’t just to get here, but there are other teams who don’t want to watch it end either.”

Dance Partners

It’s the question facing Atlantic Hockey since Niagara earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in 2013.

When and who would deliver Atlantic Hockey multiple teams to the national tournament?

If you missed Jayson Moy’s Bracketology this week, the AHC is unlikely to get a second team into the tournament this year, but it could happen with an extremely direct route. The route would require Canisius to defeat Air Force on Saturday in the conference championship, then would require all top seeds winning out with either Penn State or Ohio State losing on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament.

So it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s also an unlikely probability.

Three’s Company

Only Army West Point went to a three-game series last weekend, with Canisius, Air Force, and Robert Morris sweeping Niagara, Bentley, and Holy Cross, respectively.

After taking a 6-4 victory over Mercyhurst on Friday, the Black Knights lost in overtime, albeit in the first minute, against the Lakers on Saturday, 3-2. That forced a wild Sunday game where they found themselves trailing 3-1 during a second period in which they were outshot 26-9.

Undaunted, they scored with under five minutes to go to cut the lead to 3-2, then tied the game less than a minute in the third period. Army West Point took a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish en route to eliminating the Lakers.

“Mercyhurst had their span of three goals, and we were on the bench like, ‘Well, this isn’t good,'” Riley said, “but then we scored our second goal and it gave us a sense of relief going into the locker room. Our message was simple that we had plenty of time, and then we scored early anyways (in the third). When we tied it, it felt like a completely different game from there on.”

The Lerchies

While the league presents its own All-Conference and All-Rookie Teams, with indiivdual awards handed out on Thursday before the conference championship weekend games get underway. But Chris Lerch and I have made our own personal selections. So without further ado, here are the winners of this year’s Lerchies.

I just made that name up, but I’m hoping it sticks.

First Team

Chris:
F – Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
F – Max French, Bentley
F – Jordan Himley, Air Force
D – Phil Boje, Air Force
D – Eric Israel, Robert Morris
G – Charles Williams, Canisius

Dan:
F – Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
F – Max French, Bentley
F – Jordan Himley, Air Force
D – Phil Boje, Air Force
D – Eric Israel, Robert Morris
G – Charles Williams, Canisius

Second Team

Chris:
F – Danny Lopez, Holy Cross
F – Ryan Schmelzer, Canisius
F – Kyle Schmidt, Bentley
D – Cameron Heath, Canisius
D – Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
G – Parker Gahagen, Army West Point

Dan:
F – Daniel Leavens, Robert Morris
F – Danny Lopez, Holy Cross
F – Dylan McLaughlin, Canisius
D – Cameron Heath, Canisius
D – Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
G – Parker Gahagen, Army West Point

Third Team

Chris:
F – Justin Danforth, Sacred Heart
F – Alex Tonge, Robert Morris
F – Mike Barrett, Holy Cross
D – Mitch Nylen, Sacred Heart
D – Spencer Trapp, Holy Cross
G – Shane Starrett, Air Force

Dan:
F – Justin Danforth, Sacred Heart
F – Alex Tonge, Robert Morris
F – Mike Barrett, Holy Cross
D – Liam Clare, Sacred Heart
D – Spencer Trapp, Holy Cross
G – Shane Starrett, Air Force

Honorable Mention: Conor Andrle (Army West Point), Derek Barach (Mercyhurst), Erik Brown (RIT), Kyle Haak (Air Force), Jordan Minello (Sacred Heart), TJ Moore (Holy Cross), Brady Norrish (RIT), Chase Norrish (RIT), Zach Todd (Mercyhurst), Vinny Muto (Niagara), Alexey Solovyev (Bentley), Evan Jasper (Sacred Heart)

All-Rookie

Chris:
F – Ryner Gorowsky, Bentley
F – Nick Hutchison, Canisius
F – Brendan Soucie, Army West Point
D – Adam Brubacher, RIT
D – Alex Wilkinson, Army West Point
G – Francis Marotte, Robert Morris

Dan:
F – Ryner Gorowsky, Bentley
F – Nick Hutchison, Canisius
F – Brendan Soucie, Army West Point
D – Brett Orr, Bentley
D – Adam Brubacher, RIT
G – Francis Marotte, Robert Morris

Honorable Mention: Dominic Franco (Army West Point), Matt Hoover (Canisius), Dominik Florian (AIC), Luke Lynch (Robert Morris), Joe Duszak (Mercyhurst), Aidan Pelino (Bentley)

End of Year Awards

Chris:
Player of the Year: Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
Rookie of the Year: Francis Marotte, Robert Morris
Defenseman of the Year: Eric Israel, Robert Morris
Coach of the Year: Dave Smith, Canisius

Dan:
Player of the Year: Brady Ferguson, Robert Morris
Rookie of the Year: Francis Marotte, Robert Morris
Defenseman of the Year: Phil Boje, Air Force
Coach of the Year: Derek Schooley, Robert Morris

This is the End

This is the final weekly column for us for the 2016-2017 season. It’s a year that felt, as Chris mentioned last week, shorter than the ones in the past. Where I’m (once again) missing out on Rochester and unlikely to be joining the crew in Chicago for the Frozen Four, I feel compelled to thank you all for what has been my third year flying USCHO colors.

Nobody deserves my thank yous more than Chris Lerch, who after three years is one of my biggest mentors and confidants. I find it hard to live up to a true legacy of greatness he has and continues to set, and what he’s taught me, with the stories we’ve shared, perhaps make this more worthwhile than most anything I’ve done. One day, I promise I’ll come to Rochester.

As Chris mentioned, we have perhaps the best collection of coaches in college hockey, and that goes for your assistants. I feel especially fortunate to have spent time with coaches like Ryan Soderquist, Ben Murphy and Steve Silverthorn at Bentley, and I cherish conversations with the likes of CJ Marottolo, Eric Lang, David Berard, and, of course, Brian Riley. You are great ambassadors for the game.

To the players of the league — I hope I’ve done you and your families proud. I didn’t set out in this line of work to get to know players, but they’ve proven themselves more often than not to be a great group of kids who play hard and love this game. You’re what breathes life into what we do.

To those who have read us this year, thanks for inviting me into your lives. I hope what I’ve written is considered at times thought-provoking and worthy of discussion. You’re the reason I’m here, and I hope all of you, wherever you are, get the opportunity to stop me to talk at Bentley or on the road. You are the lifeblood of this sport.

And lastly, I thank my wife Michelle. Like the rest of “hockey widows,” she deals with me sitting at the table, interviewing, writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. She loses me on weekends when confined to frigid rinks across New England. She deals with the frustration that comes when I’m dealing with writer’s block. And she does so with a smile because she chose me. I can never, ever express what that partnership means to me, and is the case with the end of the season every year, I can look forward to a little bit of time spent as Mrs. Rubin’s Mr. Rubin.

Thank you all so very much. It’s never goodbye; it’s always see you later.

  • Louis Tully

    Go Griffs!

  • Louis Tully

    Go Griffs!

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