A weekend’s worth of observations set us up for a great final weekend stretch run with all kinds of playoff implications in Atlantic Hockey:
Bentley entered this weekend needing just four points to seal up a first-round bye and continue pace with first-place Mercyhurst. The Falcons also stood as one of three AHA teams yet to be swept in a conference slate of league games (the others being Canisius and Connecticut). Sacred Heart, meanwhile, was vastly improved off last year’s 0-26-2 start and 2-28-4 regular season but still an 11th-place team entering the weekend. The easy money stood on a Bentley sweep, especially after the Pioneers defeated the Falcons 3-1 earlier this year.
That’s why they play the games.
Sacred Heart used two goals in the final 2:18 of the third period to upend Bentley 5-4 on Friday, then used a 3-0 lead to pace a 5-2 victory in Watertown, Mass., on Saturday. Sacred Heart picked up its first full, three-game season sweep of an eastern pod opponent since 2009-10. It was the Pioneers’ second weekend, two-game sweep this year, the first since taking two from Army in the first half. By picking up four points, they have 20 points, three behind Holy Cross and keeping the Crusaders from outright clinching the league’s last home playoff slot. It also sets up some drama as the Pioneers get set to host Connecticut for two games next week while Holy Cross plays a home-and-home with Army. While the Crusaders need just a tie to secure the slot (they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their two wins over the Pioneers), it keeps the discussion open while Holy Cross fights for a shot to finish as high as sixth.
Head coach CJ Marottolo largely credited his team’s leadership. “This is such a fun team to coach,” he said after the weekend. “We’re going to have a great series [with UConn next weekend]. We all have great respect for that team, and we all have great respect for Coach Cavanaugh and what he’s accomplished. We know we’re going to have our hands full, but we have to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is play our game and take it one shift at a time.”
Started from the bottom, now they’re here
Besides Sacred Heart, the bottom half of Atlantic Hockey put together one of its finest showings of the year. Teams placed seventh through 12th went 5-3-1 in games played against teams entering the weekend first through sixth. The lower half of the league ended up going 7-5-1 on the weekend when factoring in that Holy Cross played American International. Upsets included big wins by Rochester Institute of Technology over Air Force and Canisius over Robert Morris. Army finally got its breakthrough by spoiling Connecticut’s last Atlantic Hockey senior day, and Niagara drew a tie with Mercyhurst on Friday.
It won’t be enough to close the gaps between the three tiers of teams fighting for playoff positioning in the last week of the season. But it will be enough to show that the AHA playoffs could be just as crazy this year as it was last year. Anyone on any given day can win.
While he won’t be around long enough to play with his school in Hockey East, Brant Harris set a new standard of excellence this weekend when he broke UConn’s Division I scoring record (1998-present). Harris scored two assists to bring his career total to 109 points in 137 career games. Right behind him is Jordan Sims, who has 101 points in 142 career games. While it’s likely Harris will finish with the record, we can still keep an eye on how Sims finishes to see if the duo will battle for the right to hold that record upon graduation.
For Bentley’s season, which has broken nearly every offensive record possible, Brett Gensler likely will get most of the season-end accolades by virtue of setting his school’s Division I scoring record (157 points and counting), but Andrew Gladiuk should almost assuredly win some hardware somewhere. The reigning AHA rookie of the year scored two more power-play goals on the season. He’s shattered the school’s single-season record by having 16 (and counting), and his 20 career goals is closing in on the all-time record … as a sophomore. Gladiuk has 22 goals on the season, one short of Gensler’s Division I record set in 2011-12. Alex Grieve is right behind him with 20.
One last thing: Playoff update
We’ll talk more and more about this as the week progresses, but here’s a brief summary. Mercyhurst clinched the AHA regular season title this week very quietly with a win and tie over Niagara. That leaves Bentley, Air Force, UConn and Robert Morris to battle it out for the remaining three bye slots. The odd team out will finish fifth.
Niagara, Canisius and Holy Cross are fighting for the sixth through eighth spots, with only Sacred Heart having a mathematical chance to catch the Crusaders for the final home slot. Holy Cross needs one point to end that race.
By virtue of RIT’s win and AIC’s loss-via-sweep, those two teams sit one point back of SHU for the ninth slot. While the Yellow Jackets were denied the right to play at home in the playoffs this year, they can still finish as high as ninth, their finishing spot a year ago. These three teams will battle for the 9-11 spots. Army clinched the 12th spot some time ago.