Atlantic Hockey’s heart-stopping, pulse-pounding, nerve-quaking, house-rocking year is rounding up. After a 28-game regular season for each team, 18 playoff games round us into the simplest of forms from now on. It’s single elimination. Win and move on for a chance to represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. Lose and go home.
In the early game, sixth-seeded Army West Point takes on the league’s regular season champion, Robert Morris. Then in the late game, second-seeded Air Force exchanges pleasantries with fifth-seeded Rochester Institute of Technology.
This is how we got there:
The Boys Are Back
The defending league champions will defend their crown on their home turf. After limping into the playoffs (literally, given their injury woes in net), RIT went on the road and outscored the Mercyhurst, 6-2, to sweep the host Lakers out of the postseason.
On Friday, the Tigers held the Lakers to just 22 shots on net. That allowed goalie Mike Rotolo, who helped RIT win the league tournament last season, to get reacclimated with a net he hadn’t played in front of in months. Sidelined with an injury, Rotolo played in only 14 games during the season. But after a first night in which he wasn’t tasked with saving too much, he made 31 saves on Saturday. It was his first 30-save performance since a November loss to Boston College and his first 30-save performance in a victory since January 24, 2015 – last season – against Bentley.
So now Atlantic Hockey has a wolf…er, tiger…in the hen house. When the series shifts to Blue Cross Arena, a team that utilizes the rink as its second home will have a game there, in primetime. Gear up for a lot of orange in those seats come next weekend.
Air Force Takes Flight
When RIT takes the ice on Friday, they’ll have a familiar face on the opposing bench. The Tigers joined the league in 2006-2007, the same year as Air Force. But that year, Air Force was eligible for the conference tournament while RIT, reclassifying from Division III, was not. RIT won the league regular season, but Air Force won the conference tournament.
RIT and Air Force crossed paths more than once through the years. This is the sixth time they’ll both be at Blue Cross Arena, and it’s their third time having played each other head-to-head in single elimination games. That doesn’t count last year’s playoff series in Rochester in the quarterfinals. Seven Atlantic Hockey championship banners hang between the two schools.
Air Force comes east thanks to a two-game sweep of Canisius. In a form that’s become their own this year, they went out and owned the series, winning back-to-back 4-1 games. The Falcons held the visiting Golden Griffins to 25 or less shots on both nights, including a 17-2 margin in the first period on Friday to set the tone for the weekend.
Make no mistake – this was not a bad Canisius team they were facing. Over the past couple of years, Canisius is actually the team with more postseason experience, winning a league championship and having advanced deep into the playoffs more frequently than Air Force. But Air Force continued a run that’s been incredibly special this year as a surprise second place team and a developing roster that’s looking to return the academy to the glory it had when it won five titles in six years.
The “It” Factor
If there’s one team everyone should be noting in Rochester, it’s Army West Point. The Black Knights finished sixth this year after an incredibly hot second half, and after sweeping Holy Cross on the road, they’re starting to shape into a team that simply has “it.”
Army posted back-to-back wins over the Crusaders thanks to 67 saves by Parker Gahagen, who followed up a 31-save shutout in Game 1 with a 36-save performance in Game 2. Gahagen now has a .972 save percentage in the postseason alone with a 0.80 GAA, and he enters Rochester with 138 postseason saves alone. That comes after a regular season in which he led the league in save percentage and was 0.09 goals per game away from Shane Starrett.
What’s amazing is that Army West Point is getting this far with exactly one 10-goal scorer. An incredibly deep roster, 10 players have five or more goals, an example of Moneyball hockey where the sum is greater than its parts. Then again, if the term “sum is greater than its parts” doesn’t summarize what West Point stands for in general, I don’t know what does.
But more importantly, Army West Point is starting to resemble the teams of past few years – the Robert Morris and Canisius type teams that got hot at the right time. Prior to the season, I said to more than one person that this team frightened/excited me because I felt they had the pieces. Now it seems, the pieces are coming together as they continue to win another one for Jack.
Simply The Best?
As the league’s best team in the regular season, Robert Morris earned the right to have what was supposed to be the “easiest road” to the championships. When each round reseeds, they’re supposed to play the team with the highest possible number, which is how they wound up with eighth-seeded Bentley in the quarterfinal round.
But RMU found out the hard way that getting to Rochester wasn’t easy. After losing on Friday night, they won on Saturday, but they trailed at the end of the first period of Game Three, 1-0, to a depleted Falcons roster. Then the Colonials went on a tear, scoring five in the second period, clinching their third straight trip to Blue Cross Arena with a 6-3 victory.
Unless they make a run to the Frozen Four, they won’t catch the RIT teams that won 90 or 91 games in their history. But what RMU can do is something those Tigers didn’t even do – win two championships. Even though RIT would win all of those games, they only won one championship during that magical Frozen Four series of 2010.
With 23 wins on the year, RMU’s senior class now has 86 wins on their career. By advancing, they now have a chance to put their stamp as one of the all-time best classes in Atlantic Hockey history.