Oh, what a weekend it was.
It all began where it ends
Rochester, N.Y., will become the center of the Atlantic Hockey universe in less than three weeks’ time when four teams converge for the conference championship weekend. So it’s fitting that we really start the “Road To Rochester” in … Rochester.
Playing at the glittery new Polisseni Center on the campus of RIT, the host Tigers and visiting Mercyhurst Lakers took part in what amounted to a soft opening for the playoffs. Tied in the standings, two points back of third place, both of these teams knew they would have a bye. The only remaining question was which team would be able to play the quarterfinals at home and which would play on the road.
Todd Skirving lit the lamp in the first period for RIT on Saturday to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead, but Jonathan Charbonneau drew Mercyhurst even at 1-1 early in the second period. The game remained that way through the rest of the second and through the third, sending it to overtime.
That’s where Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin made a playoff decision. Realizing his team needed a win in order to end up at home next weekend, he pulled his goalie in favor of an empty net in the extra frame. With less than a minute remaining, Myles Powell scored for the Tigers, sending them into the third seed for the playoffs and putting Mercyhurst on the road.
The win propelled RIT to 5-2-1 in February and 10-4-2 over its last 16 games. A team once destined for a road series in the first round now will host a quarterfinal matchup, meaning the wolf is back in the hen house. The Tigers have never lost a home series in the playoffs, although those series were in the house of horrors at Ritter Arena. The league’s championship weekend is also in their backyard, which is bad news for everyone else should they make it that far.
The other shoe dropped
Roughly 400 miles away from the RIT-Mercyhurst game, Bentley and Holy Cross exchanged blows in what might’ve been one of the hardest-fought hockey games all season. The Crusaders needed a win over their longtime rivals to ensure themselves of the sixth seed, while Bentley needed at least a tie to clinch the third seed in the tournament.
Scoring 4:10 into the third period to break a 1-1 tie, the Crusaders took a 2-1 victory in a game best described as an exhibition of solid goaltending. Holy Cross clinched the sixth seed.
By virtue of the loss, however, Bentley ended up in a tie with RIT. Based on tiebreaker scenarios, the Falcons fell to the fourth seed while the Tigers finished third. That means the Falcons will host fifth-seeded Mercyhurst while RIT takes on the highest remaining seed from the first round of the playoffs.
Is that a good thing for parties involved? Had Bentley won, Mercyhurst would’ve gone back to RIT, a 160-mile ride through Buffalo. It would’ve set up a potential quarterfinals series between the Falcons and Holy Cross (40 miles away) since the Crusaders finished sixth. Instead, a Holy Cross win sent the Crusaders to RIT, a reverse of a rematch from last year’s first-round series where the Tigers lost in overtime in controversial fashion.
Bentley, meanwhile, hosts the Lakers in the second round. Instead of a 160-mile ride, Mercyhurst has a 10-hour, 530-plus mile trek across New York and Massachusetts. Last year, these teams finished first and second in the league’s regular season.
The difference between decisions with Bentley-Holy Cross and RIT-Mercyhurst was roughly 18 minutes. Playoffs.
And then there are those pesky loose ends to tie up …
Air Force played Canisius at 5 p.m. Mountain time in order to have all of Saturday’s games start at the same time. The Golden Griffins, with the second seed already sealed up, gave up three first-period goals and attempted just nine shots on goal — in the entire game. The Falcons won 4-1 but because Holy Cross also won, they finished as the seventh-seeded team.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris scored in the third period on the power play to win 2-1 over Niagara. That made the 5-1 loss by American International to Army a moot point, slotting the Yellow Jackets 10th and the Purple Eagles 11th.
That means AIC is grand prize winner of a trip to Colorado to take on Air Force. In a year where they’ve traveled more than they ever have, perhaps it’s fitting for the road warriors from Springfield, Mass., to have to go to the furthest west trip. In unrelated news, they’ve actually never met in the playoffs.
Niagara, meanwhile, finished 11th and will head east to play Holy Cross. That series is shaping to have a whole lotta purple.
Your final playoff lineup
The demolition derby known as the Atlantic Hockey playoffs start on Friday with the following lineup.
First Round (Best of Three):
#11 Niagara at #6 Holy Cross
#10 American Int’l at #7 Air Force
#9 Army at #8 Sacred Heart
Quarterfinals (Best of Three):
Lowest Remaining Seed at #1 Robert Morris
Middle Remaining Seed at #2 Canisius
Highest Remaining Seed at #3 RIT
#5 Mercyhurst at #4 Bentley