It’s going to be tough to outdo last season in terms of excitement, but Atlantic Hockey is poised for a strong second half. While not as ridiculously tight as last season, the standings are bunched up again with eight teams within five points.
At the holiday break, let’s break down some of the most interesting story lines so far:
Breakout team of the first half
The Army Black Knights, picked to finish 10th in the preseason poll, have been the surprise of the league so far. After finishing 3-19-5 and scoring a league-low 52 goals last season, Army, despite having 13 freshmen on the roster, is third in the AHA in winning percentage at 5-2-2 and is averaging more than a goal a game better than in 2011-12.
Seven of those freshmen have scored goals so far, including Thane Heller, who is tied for the team lead with senior Andy Starczewski at five. Senior Ryan Leets has a .911 save percentage and his four wins tie his career high set two seasons ago.
The Black Knights’ remaining schedule has a modest .496 winning percentage and they have already beaten Holy Cross and Bentley, teams expected to finish near the top of the Eastern scheduling pod. In other words, the first half was no fluke.
Breakout player of the first half
Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the 2011-12 season but came back with a vengeance this year. The junior has posted some amazing numbers so far: a nation’s-best .959 save percentage and 1.25 goals against average.
His five shutouts so far are also best in the country.
“He’s in a zone right now, both in games and in practice,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder told me in early November.
He’s still there, leading the Purple Eagles to a 9-0-1 league record and a five-point lead in the standings.
Team most in need of the break
The Sacred Heart Pioneers are the only winless team in Division I, and you have to look no further than a 4.75 team GAA to see why. Sacred Heart also went through a stretch of 43 straight power-play chances without converting, so things aren’t happening offensively either (2.25 goals scored per game).
I saw Sacred Heart a couple of weeks ago, and the Pioneers didn’t play like a winless team, blocking a lot of shots and getting some good chances in the offensive zone. Bright spots include senior Eric Delong and sophomore Brian Sheehan, who share the team lead in scoring with 14 points each.
Coach C.J. Marottolo said that he was happy to get a chance to reassess some things.
“We’re getting a break right now,” he told USCHO after a 5-2 loss at Rochester Institute of Technology on Dec. 8. “We don’t play again ’til Dec. 31. We’ll evaluate it. We’ll look at some video. Talk about some things. We’ll get back after Christmas with a new attitude. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played. We’ll look at the second half with a vengeance.”
Team poised for a second-half surge
Robert Morris is sitting in eighth place but is fifth in winning percentage.
“We’ve got games in hand on almost everyone [all but Army and Canisius],” coach Derek Schooley said. “But games in hand are only good if you win them.”
Robert Morris is 3-1-1 in conference games, including wins over Quinnipiac and Ohio State. The Colonials are 19th in the PairWise Rankings and could make some serious noise with a good performance at the inaugural Three Rivers Classic tournament on Dec. 28 and Dec. 29. RMU will play Penn State in the first round and then either Ohio State or Miami.
After that, it’s into league play for 18 more contests. The Colonials have yet to play any of the teams behind them in the standings, so there’s plenty of chances to move up the standings in the new year.
Roughest road ahead
This hasn’t been a banner year for Rochester Institute of Technology, with the Tigers sitting in a tie for eighth place at the break. RIT has been playing better recently, undefeated in its last three games and ending the first half of the season with a 2-2 tie at Niagara, the only blemish on the Purple Eagles’ conference schedule to date.
But RIT faces the toughest schedule in Atlantic Hockey. Its remaining conference games are against teams with a combined winning percentage of .598.
Here’s the breakdown:
Remaining strength of schedule
One last thought: Midseason all-stars
There’s still a lot of hockey to be played with most teams having 16 or 17 league games left on a 27-conference-game schedule. But here are some of the better performances to date:
• Brett Gensler, Bentley: He was the AHA’s leading scorer last season and is so far again. His 26 points are best in Division I.
• Giancarlo Iuorio, Niagara: The senior has 12 goals so far, tied for best in the nation.
• Andy Starczewski, Army: He had to carry the team offensively last season, but is having an even better year (16 points so far) with some help.
• Steve Weinstein, Bentley: The sophomore is averaging a point a game from the blue line, tops in the nation.
• Chris Saracino, RIT: A healthy Saracino is a bright spot for the Tigers. The senior captain has 14 points and averaging 0.88 points per game, tied for fourth nationally.
Rookie of the half-year — Matt Blomquist, Bentley: He’s the highest scoring freshman defenseman in Division I, and is seventh overall among rookies.
MVP of the half-year — Carsen Chubak, Niagara: In a season of excellent goaltending around the league and the nation, Chubak stands out.
Coach of the half-year — Brian Riley, Army: The Black Knights are contending for a first-round bye despite the challenges of a rookie-laden roster.
USCHO’s Atlantic Hockey coverage will resume on Dec. 27 with a look at the upcoming holiday tournaments. Until then, Happy Holidays!
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.