Winner Take All
Atlantic Hockey will change its playoff format next year when RIT becomes eligible for the postseason. The 10 teams will square off in five best-of-three first round series at the top five seeds. But this season, it’s a single-game winner-take-all format in the quarterfinals, increasing the chances of an upset. Let’s look at each of the four games and see what each team must do to make it to Rochester.
No. 9 AIC at No. 1 Sacred Heart
How They Got Here: The Yellow Jackets (8-24-1) vanquished Canisius last Saturday, 2-1 in the play-in game. AIC opened the season 0-12, but took points in all but two of its final league series. Sacred Heart (20-10-4) won seven of its last 10 games to outduel Army for the top seed.
How Sacred Heart Wins: Shake off the rust; bury chances since AIC outshot the Pioneers in both previous meetings this season.
How AIC Wins: Outwork the more talented Pioneers, and get playoff-caliber goaltending.
Pioneers to Watch: Pierre-Luc O’Brien (Forward, 43 points), Alexandre Parent (Forward, 38 points), Bear Trapp (Forward, 37 points)
Yellow Jackets to Watch: Jereme Tendler (Forward, 28 points), Tom Fenton (Goal, .877 save percentage), Bryan Jurynec (Forward, 15 points)
Outlook: The Pioneers are the top seed for the first time in school history, winning 20 games so far. They’ve got to shake off the rust of almost two weeks off quickly, since anything can happen in a one-game playoff. There’s no room for error, even for the top-seeded team in the tournament. AIC played last weekend, while Sacred Heart didn’t.
“You deal with the situation you have, whether it be best two of three or just the one game,” said Sacred Heart coach Sean Hannah. “But with a single game, we have to be ready to play 60 minutes.”
Unlike the other three home teams, the Pioneers didn’t know their opponent until last Saturday night.
“I think it was an advantage,” Hannah said. “We just focused that first week on ourselves without worrying about who we were playing.”
School is on break this week, but Hannah says he still expects good fan support.
“We’re glad to have home ice,” he said. “We get good community support and the marketing department has done a good job reaching people who might only go to a few games a year and letting them know about playoff hockey.”
AIC took points against all but three teams this season, one being Sacred Heart, which is undefeated in its last nine games at home against the Yellow Jackets. But the Pioneers have been bounced out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals two years in a row, and Hannah is taking nothing for granted.
“They’re a tenacious team,” said Hannah. “They work hard. It was a nice win for them last weekend, so they have momentum. We need a solid game all around.”
No. 7 Bentley at No. 2 Army
How They Got Here: Army (15-11-5), picked to finish ninth in the preseason poll, was at or near the top of the standings all season. Bentley (12-21-1), last season’s runner-up, won just once in its final eight games of the season.
How Army Wins: They say defense wins championships, and the Black Knights hope so. They sport the top defense and second-best penalty kill in the league.
How Bentley Wins: Dictate an up-tempo pace and win the transition game. Get some puck luck to break its streak of 13 consecutive road losses.
Black Knights to Watch: Josh Kassel (Goal, .913 save percentage), Luke Flicek (Forward, 33 points), Tim Manthey (Defense, 24 points)
Falcons to Watch: Jeff Gumaer (Forward, 33 points), Dain Prewitt (Forward, 27 points), Anthony Canzoneri (Forward, 26 points)
Outlook: Last week’s column contained quotes by several coaches bemoaning a weekend off prior to the quarterfinals. Army coach Brian Riley wasn’t one of them.
“I liked it,” he said. “The way things are here, we don’t have any easy days, and we took advantage of the time off to hit the books and maintain on the ice last week and really start focusing on the task at hand this week.”
The task at hand is thwarting a group of speedy Bentley forwards.
“You want to make sure you’re not turning the puck over, or they’ll make you pay,” said Riley. “We have to make sure we make good decisions with the puck.”
As it so often does in playoff games, it may come down to goaltending and special teams.
“Discipline will certainly be a factor,” said Riley. “You don’t want to be killing penalties the whole game. And we need the kind of goaltending that Josh Kassel has been giving us all season.”
The teams last met on February 16 and 17 with Army coming away with a pair of two goal wins.
“Those were great games,” recalled Riley. “Two evenly-matched teams. The fans will be in for a treat.”
Last year the teams met in the quarterfinals at Bentley, with the Falcons winning in double overtime. This year, the Black Knights have gained a home-ice playoff game for the first time in decades.
“That was our goal all season,” said Riley. “The one game (playoff) opens the door to an underdog, and we’ve usually been in that position. We need to reap the rewards of playing at home. You can’t make the mistake of thinking that it guarantees you anything.”
No. 6 Mercyhurst at No. 3 Connecticut
How They Got Here: Connecticut (15-17-2) went 6-1-1 down the stretch to lock up home ice. Mercyhurst (9-16-6) was picked to finish first in the preseason poll, but has struggled this season.
How Connecticut Wins: Keep the momentum from the regular season, match the Lakers’ speed up front.
How Mercyhurst Wins: Offense, offense, offense. Force UConn to play the Lakers’ run-and-gun game.
Huskies to Watch: Matt Scherer (Forward, 34 points), Beau Erickson (Goal, .910 save percentage), Chris Myhro (Forward, 30 points)
Lakers to Watch: Ben Cottreau (Forward, 34 points), Scott Champagne (Forward, 26 points), Jordan Wakefield (Goal, .915 save percentage)
Outlook: This series features a couple of firsts: it’s the first time that Mercyhurst has been on the road for the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, and it’s also the first time the UConn Huskies have been at home. Unfortunately, the school is on spring break.
“The timing’s bad, but it’s still exciting,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall. “The students won’t be around but home playoff games are special, and we’re enjoying that.”
While the Huskies have some dynamic forwards including senior captain Matt Scherer, its formula for success this season includes a heaping helping of rookie goaltender Beau Erickson, who is 9-5-2 since assuming the starter’s role after Christmas.
“It’s clear how well we’ve done since we made that decision, and what our record was prior to that,” said Marshall.
Erickson and company will have to thwart the potent Laker offense, which includes veterans Scott Champagne and Ben Cottreau, who were both bitten by the injury bug this season but are healthy now.
“It’s going to come down to which team can shut the other one down,” said Marshall. “They’re a dangerous team. They played a lot of quality teams four times in the conference. They had to battle all year and they’ll be ready for us. We have to limit the run-and-gun and not let them gain confidence.”
No. 5 Holy Cross at No. 4 Air Force
How They Got Here: The Falcons (16-15-5) set a school record for victories in a season on the way to a fifth-place finish and fourth seed. Holy Cross (10-19-5) started the season 6-3 in conference, but has won just three times since Thanksgiving.
How Holy Cross Wins: Limit the Ehn line’s chances and use its playoff experience.
How Air Force Wins: Stay out of the box. The Falcons have the weakest penalty kill in the league (78.6%)
Falcons to Watch: Eric Ehn (Forward, 60 points), Andrew Ramsey (Forward, 44 points), Jeff Hajner (Forward, 26 points)
Crusaders to Watch: James Sixsmith (Forward, 47 points), Dale Reinhardt (Forward, 34 points), Matt Burke (Defense, 18 points)
Outlook: Air Force will enjoy its first home playoff game in school history, but coach Frank Serratore doesn’t know what to expect in terms of fan support.
“We won’t know until Saturday,” he said. “We could have a great crowd or we could have 300 people. It’s tough because we’re competing with pro sports as well as Colorado College and Denver hosting playoff series this weekend.”
Serratore says he’s expecting a close game with the defending champion Crusaders.
“We tied both times we played them in the regular season,” he said. “They’re a good team. It will come down to what it usually does in the playoffs: goaltending and special teams.”
Serratore says he’s looking forward to next season when the quarterfinals change to a best-of-three, a format he greatly prefers.
“Home or away, I like the longer series,” he said. “Teams work hard for 28 league games and then it comes down to one game? You want the league’s best teams in Rochester. In a one-game deal something weird can happen.
“The home teams, which are supposed to be the better teams, have earned the right to have the lower seeded team beat them twice. If you get beat twice you weren’t the better team to begin with.”
The Air Force coach can’t say enough about junior forward Eric Ehn, who leads the nation in scoring and should be a Hobey Baker finalist.
“Some people will look at his stats and say, ‘Yeah, but he played in Atlantic Hockey.’ Look at the goals he scored against top teams like Colorado College and Denver. He didn’t get a goal against Notre Dame but [Irish head coach] Jeff Jackson said he was the best player on the ice.”
Just one game last week, but the league handed out awards nonetheless.
Player of the Week for March 4, 2007:
Mike McMillan, AIC — The freshman forward’s fifth goal of the season was his biggest — the game winner against Canisius with 7:35 left to play, ending the Griffs’ season and sending the Yellow Jackets into the quarterfinals.
Goaltender of the Week for March 4, 2007:
Tom Fenton, AIC — Fenton stopped all but one shot to lead his team to a 2-1 win at Canisius.
Rookie of the Week for March 4, 2007:
Jason Weeks, Canisius — Weeks got the lone goal for the Golden Griffins on Saturday, his 15th and last of the season.
Around the League
Canisius: Billy Irish-Baker finished his career at Canisius by setting the program mark for most consecutive games played at 115. Senior forward Mike Cohen signed a contract with Reading of the ECHL.
RIT: The Tigers’ season is over, but they’re still on the radar. RIT continues to get votes in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll.
USCHO covers Atlantic Hockey all week long on the Atlantic Hockey Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.