There’s very little mediocrity at this juncture of the Atlantic Hockey season. Seven of the league’s 10 teams are on some kind of streak, good or bad.
Let’s keep things positive for now and talk about the four teams that have won at least four games in a row. RIT and Air Force have the No. 1 and No. 2 unbeaten streaks in Division I. The Tigers are 9-0-1 in their last 10 games, while the Falcons are 6-0-3 in their last nine contests.
Mercyhurst is on a six-game winning streak, and Army has won four in a row.
It’s no surprise that goaltending has been key for all four teams during their spate of success.
“It all starts there,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “We build from the net out and you can’t be successful without strong goaltending. And Ryan Zapolski has been the man for us.”
Zapolski has been named goaltender of the week in the AHA for two consecutive weeks. Last weekend, he allowed one goal on 50 shots to lead the Lakers to a sweep of Connecticut.
“He’s playing some of the best hockey of his career,” said Gotkin.
RIT’s Jared DeMichiel has been spectacular for the Tigers during their streak, posting a 1.34 GAA and a .951 save percentage over his last nine starts. The senior split time with the departed Louis Menard last season, but has taken over the starter’s role this season, playing in 14 of the Tigers’ 15 games so far.
“Our strong defensive play starts with Jared,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “He is on top of his game right now, and with that, the whole team has bought into playing stronger defensively.”
At Army, Jay Clark is averaging 1.5 goals allowed a game over his last four games, and has an overall GAA of 2.77. Last weekend, Clark stopped 76 of 79 shots to lead the Black Knights to a 2-1 and 4-2 sweep of Sacred Heart.
And last but not least, Air Force’s Andrew Volkening hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game since Oct. 23. The reining AHA goaltender of the year has a 2.53 GAA and a .911 save percentage.
Volkening’s Falcons will host Mercyhurst in the only conference games this weekend. Mercyhurst trails Air Force and RIT by two points in the standings. The Tigers have a single non-conference game this weekend, so either Air Force or Mercyhurst will find itself in sole possession of first place heading into the holiday break.
It’s been a fast reversal for Mercyhurst, which four weeks ago was swept by RIT at home and was near the bottom of the AHA standings. I asked Gotkin if he was surprised to be playing for the conference lead so soon after.
“Anything is possible,” he said. “This league is tough from top to bottom. I said before the season started that this was going to be the tightest year ever in terms of the standings. So the difference from top to bottom can change in a hurry.
“I thought those two games against RIT [2-1 and 3-2 losses] were two of the best games we played all year. An average fan can sometimes think you play well when you win and you play bad when you lose. But it’s not always that way. We played our best games of the season to that point and it didn’t go our way. We got better from that weekend.”
“We are getting the bounces now, and are playing really calm and composed in the tight games,” said Wilson of his Tigers. “We haven’t deviated from the game plan in those situations, and have been able to come out with some big wins. We need to continue to play well, because every game is tough from here on out.”
“This Friday is our biggest game of the year,” said Gotkin. “Not just because it’s Air Force. It’s because it’s our next game.”
Player of the Week for Dec. 7, 2009:
Jacques Lamoureux — Air Force
The senior had three goals and three assists last weekend with help the Falcons to a sweep of AIC. His four points on Friday tied his career high. Lamoureux leads the Falcons with 10 goals and 11 assists.
Goalie of the Week for Dec. 7, 2009:
Ryan Zapolski — Mercyhurst
Zapolski wins the award for the second week in a row. This time he stopped 50 of 51 shots in a 5-0, 3-1 sweep of Connecticut.
Rookie of the Week for Dec. 7, 2009:
Joe Campanelli — Bentley
Campanelli had a four-point weekend on one goal and three assists as Bentley split a series at Canisius.
The Other Kind of Streak
Unfortunately, there are three teams in the league that have streaks they’re trying to break.
AIC has lost seven in a row, getting swept in succession by Canisius, Mercyhurst and Air Force and then dropping a game at Brown on Tuesday. The Yellow Jackets have one more game before the holidays and it’s another toughie, at No. 7 Quinnipiac on Saturday.
Connecticut is winless in its last eight games (0-7-1) and has put away the skates until after Christmas. The Huskies will host Bentley, UMass and Union in their annual holiday tournament on Dec. 29 and 30. The Bentley-UConn first-round game is a league game.
Sacred Heart hasn’t won in its last seven games (0-6-1) and travels to Dartmouth on Sunday for its final contest of 2009.
Defense = Offense
RIT’s defense is having a pretty good season, allowing just 2.3 goals per game, ninth best in the nation. But it’s on offense that the Tigers’ blue line corps is really shining. RIT defensemen are putting the puck in the net at amazing pace, accounting for 52 percent of the Tigers’ goals so far this season. Senior defenseman Al Mazur leads the team in goals with six, while classmate Dan Ringwald is tied for second with five. Freshman Chris Tanev also has five goals from the blue line, while sophomores Chris Haltgin (three) and freshman Chris Saracono (two) have also lit the lamp more than once.
Quote of the Week
Air Force coach Frank Serratore made these postgame comments to the Colorado Springs Gazette after his team defeated AIC on Friday:
“I can’t think of a game I’ve coached at Air Force that we played this poorly and won. We won the game for two reasons: We had Andrew Volkening and we had Jacques Lamoureux. I wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for any of the other 17. We stole that game.”
This is my last column of 2009. There’s a few AHA teams in action before we meet again:
Canisius hosts Robert Morris on Dec. 15 and Colgate on Dec. 20
Bentley and Connecticut will be at the UConn Classic on Dec. 29 and 30
RIT will be at Minnesota State Jan. 1 and 2
Air Force travels to Sacred Heart for a conference series on Jan. 2 and 3
Holy Cross will be at the Ledyard Bank Classic on Jan. 2 and 3
Mercyhurst will be at the Catamount Cup on Jan. 2 and 3
Army will host Union on Jan. 2
Check out a game if you can, and we’ll see you in 2010.
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.