This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 8, 2007

Freaky Friday

Does anybody want to win this thing? Based on last Friday’s results, one wonders.

Frontrunners RIT, Sacred Heart and Air Force all lost last Friday, maintaining the status quo. RIT broke through on Saturday, and Army tied Holy Cross as well. But in total, the top four teams in the league gained just three points in seven games, and they weren’t playing each other. Sacred Heart was swept for just the second time this season, Air Force for the first time, and at home no less.

With just three weekends to go, is the pressure getting to teams at the top?

“I think it’s more parity than pressure,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, whose Tigers lost on home ice to Canisius on Friday. “Any team really can beat anyone else. Canisius outplayed us on Friday, and they’re in ninth place. AIC is a good team and will beat more teams before they are through. It’s going to be an exciting three weeks.”

“The parity is the best it’s ever been,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “Just a couple of years ago it was clear who the top two or three teams were in the league. But now it’s clear that anyone can beat anyone.”

Young Blood

The success of the freshman class at Canisius has been justifiably recognized and well-documented. Golden Griffins freshmen have won nine Rookie of the Week awards and two goaltender of the week honors. Jason Weeks won the Rookie of the Week award again this week, his third time this season. Josh Heidinger and defenseman Carl Hudson have each won it twice, while Chris Forsman also claimed the award this season. Goaltender Andrew Loewen has won a Rookie of the Week award and has been named Goaltender of the Week twice.

But there are other exceptional freshmen in the league who have come into their own this season. Another crop of top rookies can be found 60 miles down the New York State Thruway, at first-place RIT.

“Maybe they haven’t gotten much attention because they’re playing behind some well-known players,” said coach Wayne Wilson of his rookies. “But I’ll stack our freshmen up with anyone in the league.”

For example, defenseman Al Mazur is second among rookies in Atlantic Hockey in points per game (0.96), with fellow blueliner Dan Ringwald tied for sixth (0.68).

“I can’t talk about one without the other,” said Wilson. “They came in an had an immediate impact. Ringwald quarterbacks our top power-play unit, which is first in the league right now and one of the best in the country. That says a lot about a freshman. And Mazur finishes so well.”

Mazur is a whopping +16, way out in front of any other rookie defenseman in the league.

In net, RIT’s Louis Menard has the best overall numbers among rookie goaltenders: a 2.49 GAA and a.914 save percentage. In league play, his numbers are even better: a 1.89 GAA and a .933 save percentage, both tops among all goaltenders in Atlantic Hockey. Menard is an amazing 9-0 in league play this season.

“He has sickening numbers,” said Wilson. “He’s played some very big games for us, sometimes coming off a (team) loss the night before and has led us to some very big wins.”

Up front, RIT’s Anton Kharin is tied with Weeks in goals scored in league play with 10.

“He’s explosive,” said Wilson. “He’s our ‘Russian Rocket.’ Anton has a knack for scoring goals and we have high expectations for him.”

At Canisius, Heidinger still leads the team in scoring but has cooled off in the new year, scoring no goals and seven assists in 11 games. But Weeks has picked up the slack, with 10 goals and three assists over the same span.

It’s clear that rookies will help determine the fates of both of these teams as the Tigers fight for the league title and the Griffs battle to avoid the play-in game. Here are some other rookies from around the league who have made a significant impact this season:

Owen Meyer, Army – Meyer has 18 points on the season, good for sixth in the league.

Ryan Driscoll, Holy Cross – Driscoll’s 17 points are fourth-best for the Crusaders.

Beau Erickson, Connecticut – Erickson has become the go-to guy in net for the Huskies, posting a .904 save percentage.

Cody Collins and Matt Fennell, Mercyhurst – Collins has 17 points so far on the season, while D-man Fennell has 12 assists and a pair of power-play goals.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for February 4, 2007:
Kyle Gourgon, Mercyhurst
— Gourgon had five points in two games as Mercyhurst swept Air Force last weekend. The senior forward from Stittsville, Ontario, now has 10 goals and 20 assists on the season,

Goaltender of the Week for February 4, 2007:
Beau Erickson, Connecticut
— The freshman netminder made 66 saves on the weekend to lead the Huskies to a sweep over Holy Cross. Erickson is 6-5-1 with a .904 save percentage.

Rookie of the Week for February 4, 2007:
Jason Weeks, Canisius
— Weeks wins the award for the third time in five weeks, The freshman from Seattle, Wash., had two goals and two assists as the Golden Griffins split with I-90 rival RIT.

Crunch Time

Don’t look now, but there’s just three weeks left in the regular season, with teams having anywhere from four to six games left. Let’s take a look at each team’s chances as they come down the stretch:

RIT — The Tigers have cooled off a bit at 4-2 in their last six league games after going 10-1 in their previous 11 conference matches. But thanks to losses by the teams closest to the Tigers in the standings, RIT has been able to extend its cushion, now leading second-place Army by three points with two games in hand. Sacred Heart probably has the best chance to catch the Tigers, trailing by five points with six games to play. RIT needs to go 4-2 the rest of the way to guarantee the regular-season title. The Tigers will do fine if they win more Friday contests. RIT is 6-5 in league play on Fridays and 9-0-1 on Saturdays.

Army — The Black Knights are having a record-setting year, thanks to a stingy defense and the play of goaltender Josh Kassel. Kassel is a sophomore, but played only 20 minutes of hockey his freshman season, so add him to the “outstanding rookie” list. Army is off this weekend (its game against the Royal Military Academy was cancelled), and then finishes up the season with series with Bentley and Sacred Heart. That final series could determine the top seed in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, or the regular-season title itself should RIT falter. Fortunately for the Black Knights, three of their final four games are at home, where they have lost only once this season.

Sacred Heart — The Pioneers have lost five of their last seven games but are still in decent shape, trailing Army by just a point for second place with two games in hand. They only play two of their last six games at home and will travel to face a suddenly-resurgent Mercyhurst squad this weekend. The Pios will need Pierre-Luc O’Brien to find the back of the net more frequently — the all-star forward has just two goals in his last 12 games. O’Brien needs just one more to set the all-time school record.

Air Force — The Falcons were swept at home for the first time this season last week. Despite outshooting Mercyhurst 97-43, Air Force fell 7-5 on Friday and 3-2 in overtime on Saturday. The Lakers did a nice job of containing Falcons forward Eric Ehn, holding him to a single assist. Ehn fell from a tie for first in scoring in Division I to third overall as a result. A month ago, fans might have circled this weekend’s Air Force at RIT series as battle for first, but the Falcons are 1-4 in their last five games and now trail the Tigers by eight points in the standings. Still, a sweep this weekend puts them right back in the thick of things.

Connecticut — If the Huskies could play against everyone the way they perform against Sacred Heart, they’d be at the top of the standings instead of fourth. UConn swept the Pioneers last weekend for its first series sweep since December 2005, against … Sacred Heart. Connecticut is 9-3-1 in its last 13 against the Pioneers. Senior Cole Koidahl picked up his 100th point last weekend, and he and teammates Chris Myhro and Matt Scherer need to stay hot down the stretch, as the Huskies close with series against three teams chasing them in the standings: Bentley, AIC and Holy Cross.

Holy Cross — The Crusaders have been in a funk since Thanksgiving, winning just twice since November 21. But thanks to five ties over that span, Holy Cross is just two points out of a home playoff spot. The season-ending injury to Jon Landry hurts, but on the plus side the Crusaders have the 11th-ranked power play in Division I and face some teams down the stretch that are prone to take penalties, including Canisius this weekend.

Bentley — The Falcons are another team that’s had a hard time stringing wins together, splitting eight of their 11 series so far this season. Coming off a 6-1 loss at Quinnipiac on Tuesday, Bentley finishes up with three series against teams ahead of it in the standings, including a home-and-home with Connecticut this weekend. The Falcons can finish as high as second and as low as 10th, so there’s a lot left to be decided.

Mercyhurst — As opposed to several teams ahead of them in the standings, the Lakers are winning right now. After an 0-8-2 slump, Mercyhurst has won four in a row, including a sweep at Air Force last weekend.

“We’re healthy,” said coach Rick Gotkin. “We’re really not playing any different than we did all year, but we’re healthy and we’re getting bounces.”

And goaltending. Jordan Wakefield is making the most of his senior season. He made 90 saves last weekend.

“The games were a lot closer than the shots (97-43) indicted,” said Gotkin. “They were shooting from everywhere. But the scoring opportunities were about the same.”

Mercyhurst can make some noise with series against frontrunners Sacred Heart and RIT coming up. The Lakers can still grab a home-ice playoff game if they continue to finish strong.

Canisius — The Griffs played one of their most complete games of the season last Friday, defeating RIT 4-1. While a couple of their freshmen have cooled off, rookies Jason Weeks and Andrew Loewen continue to play well. Canisius is still mathematically eligible for home ice, but a reasonable goal is to escape the play-in game. They trail eighth-place Mercyhurst by three points with five games left, including a head-to-head matchup in their final game of the regular season.

AIC — The Yellow Jackets are virtually assured a spot in the play-in game, trailing Mercyhurst by seven points with four games to play. Thanks to a resurgent penalty kill, AIC has found ways to win as of late, taking points in all but one of their last five weekend series. The Yellow Jackets have already matched their win total from last season. That means on any given night … watch out.