Last week might just have been the third most-important in the ten-year history of Atlantic Hockey (and the MAAC before it.). The first would obviously be the first league games, played back in 1998. The formation of the MAAC saved some programs from either folding or being relegated to a quasi-Division III no-man’s land. Next in line would be Holy Cross’ improbable upset of top-ranked Minnesota in the 2006 NCAA tournament.
In between there have been great moments. Some were near-misses, like Air Force’s last two NCAA tournament games. Some have been major upsets: RIT beating Minnesota in its own tournament, and Sacred Heart’s and the Tigers’ wins over Cornell, for example.
But last week was different. Sure, there were some near-misses and what I suppose what some will call upsets. But by the sheer number of positive events, it’s clear that Cinderella doesn’t have to be home by midnight anymore. Atlantic Hockey teams were winning games because they were simply better than their opponents.
• Last Tuesday, Holy Cross gave seventh-ranked Boston University all it could handle in a 3-2 loss.
• On Friday, Army lost to Union with less than a second to go (it gets better from here).
• On Friday, Canisius defeated Clarkson 4-3 in overtime at Cheel Arena, the first AHA team to win there in 18 attempts.
• On Friday, tenth-ranked Air Force defeated then-third-ranked Colorado College 4-1, for the first time in 27 years.
• On Friday, Mercyhurst defeated host Rensselaer 4-1 in the opening round of its tournament.
• On Saturday, the Lakers beat No. 7 Princeton 6-4 to win said tournament.
• On Saturday, Connecticut beat Brown 4-1, its first win ever over the Bears.
• On Saturday, Canisius tied Clarkson 2-2.
• And finally, on Saturday, Air Force lost at No. 8 Denver 4-1 in a game that was closer than the score. The Falcons outshot the Pioneers 39-29. “In the games that we’ve played this year, I can’t say that we’ve played a better team,” said Denver coach George Gwozdecky after the game.
The only downer to a magical week was RIT’s 6-3 loss to Mass-Lowell. In all, the AHA went 5-4-1 against some pretty stiff competition, and most of the losses were close.
“You knew it was only a matter of time,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, “Everybody talks like they’re so surprised. I’m not surprised. People haven’t been giving us enough credit. We know we’re not the WCHA; we know we’re not Hockey East, but ask any league where they started from. Look at the CCHA. You have to start somewhere and build, and we’ve been doing that.”
“We’re really excited for our league,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “Our guys were watching the other scores.”
The Griffs were supposed to be what the doctor ordered for a slumping Clarkson team, but instead provided more misery on Friday, getting the game-tying goal with 14 seconds to play and then winning on a breakaway by Spencer Churchill 3:46 into the extra period.
“It was good to get the win because we had played well the entire game,” said Smith. “It was a good game — back and forth and then they got a power-play goal and another goal to go ahead. But the guys showed tremendous effort to tie the game with (Jason) Week’s goal and then Spencer (Churchill) got the game winner.”
Smith says his team’s intensity was at the same level the next night in a 2-2 tie that saw the Griffs open a 2-0 lead until Clarkson made a comeback.
“We played really well both nights,” he said. “Our goaltending (Andrew Loewen on Friday and Dan Morrison on Saturday) was excellent.”
Canisius is having its best season in a few years, as Smith’s team continues to mature and add more pieces to the puzzle.
“We like our team,” said Smith. “We’ve recruited a specific kind of player that will be successful in this league. It’s no big secret — Rick Gotkin has been doing it for years, as have the other teams.”
Smith is cautiously optimistic about the rest of the season as his team moves exclusively into league play from here on out.
“It feels good for the school and the players to have some success,” he said. “But we can’t feel rewarded at this point with so much hockey left.”
Gotkin’s Mercyhurst squad got 39 saves from Ryan Zapolski on Friday to defeat Rensselaer 4-1, and then jumped all over Princeton in the opening period of the tournament’s championship game, opening a 4-0 lead.
“We were absolutely the better team in the first period,” said Gotkin. “Everything went right for us. It could have been 7-0. But Princeton showed how good they were in the third.”
The seventh-ranked Tigers scored four times in the final period, including twice in the last three minutes with their goalie pulled to even the score. But Scott Pitt scored 40 seconds after Princeton had tied the game and the Lakers tacked on an empty-netter to win 6-4. Zapolski made 46 saves for the win.
“It was one of the craziest games I’ve ever been involved in,” said Gotkin. “We dug down deep (after Princeton tied).”
The Lakers, who opened the season 1-8-1, have now won four in a row. They travel to AIC this weekend.
“We’re playing great and need to continue to play great,” Gotkin said. “Air Force is out in front but from second to tenth things are wide open.”
Player of the Week for December 3, 2008:
Brandon Cummings — Canisius
The sophomore had the Griffs’ first two goals of the game on Friday and assisted on a tally on Saturday to help Canisius to a win and a tie at Clarkson.
Goaltender of the Week for December 3, 2008:
Ryan Zapolski — Mercyhurst
Zapolski led the Lakers to the title of the 58th Annual RPI Holiday Hockey Tournament, making 85 saves on the weekend, including 46 in the title game against Princeton. Zapolski is 4-0-1 with a 1.99 GAA and a save percentage of .944
Rookie of the Week for December 3, 2008:
Marcello Ranallo — Connecticut
Ranallo recorded a goal and two assists to help the Huskies to a 4-1 win at Brown.
Player of the Month for November, 2008
Josh Heidinger — Canisius
The local product had nine points in November including his first hat trick. He currently ranks fifth in Atlantic Hockey in points and assists.
Other Players Nominated: Tom Mele, AIC; Jeff Gumaer, Bentley; Chris Ochoa, Connecticut; Jordan Cyr, Holy Cross
Goaltender of the Month for November, 2008:
Andrew Volkening — Air Force
The junior has led the Falcons to their best start in school history. Volkening ranks second in the nation in GAA (1.35), eighth in the nation in saves percentage (.942) and leads the nation with 13 wins.
Other Goalies Nominated: Dan Ramirez, AIC; Adam Roy, Holy Cross; Ryan Zapolski, Mercyhurst
Rookie of the Month for November, 2008:
Dan Morrison — Canisius
The goaltender had a 3-1-1 record in November, posting a 1.77 GAA and a .939 save percentage for the month.
Other Rookies Nominated: Scott Mathis, Air Force; Rody Selk, AIC; Kyle Rank, Bentley; Dave Kostuch, Canisius
Around the League
Air Force: All good things must come to an end, but not without a handful of records being set. The Falcons’ win on Friday over Colorado College extended their unbeaten streak to 13 games, the best start and longest winning streak in school history.
The win over No. 3 Colorado College marked the highest-ranked team Air Force has even beaten.
Bentley: Senior Anthony Canzoneri assisted in the lone goal for the Falcons on Nov. 25, giving him 61 for his career, which ties him for the most assists in Bentley’s Division I history.
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.