This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 22, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

The playoff picture became clearer last weekend, with the four home-ice slots now filled. But much remains to be decided, as only AIC knows where it will finish in the standings. Let’s look at each team’s status as we enter the final weekend of the regular season:

On the Line: The Tigers need a point to share the regular season title, two points to win it outright. They can still blow it if Sacred Heart sweeps Army and the Tigers lose both games at Bentley.
Best Finish: First
Worst Finish: Second
Games Remaining: Bentley (2)

The Scoop: Mercyhurst denied the Tigers a chance to win the regular-season title on home ice last weekend. RIT came back from a 4-1 deficit last Friday to beat the Lakers 6-5, scoring the winning goal with 1.5 seconds to play. But on Saturday, Mercyhurst again built a lead and this time held it, winning 3-2.

“We’re O.K.,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “It would have been nice to win it at home, but we’ve been a good road team this season (10-5-2) and now the focus shifts to this weekend and the challenge against Bentley. They’re capable of beating anyone.”

The Tigers’ goal all year has been the regular-season title, since RIT is ineligible for the postseason.

“Everybody has something to play for this weekend,” said Wilson. “There are too many (playoff scenarios) to even think about. It’s a 28-game season, and for us, this weekend feels like single elimination.”

Sacred Heart
On The Line: This weekend’s series with Army will decide the top seed in the AHA playoffs. Army has to sweep or Sacred Heart gets it.
Best Finish: First
Worst Finish: Third
Games Remaining: Army (2)

The Scoop: The Pioneers stumbled in January, but have rebounded to win four in a row and six of their last eight.

“The key for us is consistency,” said coach Shaun Hannah. “Our approach has been to be consistent game in and game out and the wins and points will take care of themselves.”

Sacred Heart needs just one point to claim the top seed in the AHA playoffs, and is still in the running for the regular-season title, trailing RIT by three points with two games left.

“We’re in the driver’s seat for the top seed, and that’s our focus,” said Hannah. “We don’t have control over the RIT situation. We’re focused on what we can control. If (the regular-season title) works out, great.”

On the Line: The Black Knights have clinched a home-ice playoff game and can still get the top seed with a sweep of Sacred Heart.
Best Finish: Second
Worst Finish: Third
Games Remaining: Sacred Heart (2)

The Scoop: Home ice is sweet for the Black Knights, who are 8-1-4 at Tate Rink this season. Getting a home playoff game is a goal that took quite a while to achieve, according to coach Brian Riley.

“In the Division I era, I think the only other time we’ve had a home playoff game was back in ’63-’64 in the ECAC,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve had success at home. It’s a great opportunity for us, and I think our opponents appreciate playing here because of the atmosphere (Army leads the AHA in attendance, averaging 1,847 fans per game).”

Goaltender Josh Kassel has been the go-to guy all season at Army, which can get the top seed with a home-and-home sweep of Sacred Heart. “Like I’ve told people all season, Josh gives us the opportunity to win every game,” said Riley. “He’s been very consistent, playing almost every minute for us this season. Not that he hasn’t wanted to, but it can put a lot of pressure on a goaltender. But he likes it.”

On the Line: The Huskies got only one point last weekend, but thanks to Holy Cross getting swept, UConn has locked up a home-ice playoff game for the first time as a member of Atlantic Hockey.
Best Finish: Fourth
Worst Finish: Fifth
Games Remaining: Holy Cross (2)

The Scoop: Some might say that the Huskies backed into the playoffs, getting just one point last weekend while teams below them in the standings (Air Force and Holy Cross) failed to gain much ground. But coach Bruce Marshall says the quest for home ice is a marathon, not a sprint.

“We’ve gotten points every weekend but one and put ourselves in a position where other teams have to do remarkable work to catch us,” he said. “It’s a season-long race, and we had just enough to cross the finish line ahead of some other teams.

“Look at what AIC (which took three points from the Huskies last weekend) has done recently,” added Marshall. “There’s really no team that anybody’s looking forward to playing in the playoffs. Everybody wants to make the NCAAs, but nobody really looks forward to the battle to get there.”

Air Force
On the Line: The Falcons clinched a final home ice spot last weekend, and can finish as high as fourth if they can catch UConn, which they trail by a point.
Best Finish: Fourth
Worst Finish: Fifth
Games Remaining: AIC (2)

The Scoop: Frank Serratore’s Falcons have locked up home ice in their first season in the league, but he doesn’t the distance his opponents have to travel is an advantage over the other three home-ice squads. “I’d rather fly (from Colorado Springs) to Boston than take a bus from Boston to Buffalo,” he said. “The real advantage goes to whoever has the best goaltending. That’s the team that’ll win.”

Holy Cross
On the Line: The Crusaders’ sweep at the hands of Sacred Heart cost them a chance at home ice. The best they can finish now is sixth.
Best Finish: Sixth
Worst Finish: Seventh
Games Remaining: Connecticut (2)

The Scoop: Coach Paul Pearl’s team will be on the road for the playoffs for the first time in league history, but he likes their chances. “We actually played well last weekend (in a pair of losses to Scared Heart),” he said. “We’ve been playing well for the past couple of weeks. The puck needs to start bouncing our way and we’ll be fine.”

On the Line: The Lakers can still finish as high as sixth, but need a lot of help. A win over Canisius assures Mercyhurst that it will not be in the play-in game. A loss and a Bentley win or two Bentley ties will mean the Lakers will host the play-in.
Best Finish: Sixth
Worst Finish: Ninth
Games Remaining: Canisius

The Scoop: The play-in game is uncharted territory for Mercyhurst, and coach Rick Gotkin would like to keep it that way. But based on the current setup, it’s not the end of the world.

“I don’t know what it would be like, because we’ve never played in it,” he said. “It’s not something you want to be associated with if you can avoid it, but it’s better than the old system where you had to play on a Tuesday and then travel to the top seed. That was a big disadvantage.”

This season, the play-in game is a week from Saturday, and is the only game that weekend, giving the other seven teams almost two weeks off. “To be home for it wouldn’t be that bad,” said Gotkin. ‘It’s still something you want to avoid, but you can look at it from a positive standpoint and say that you’re keeping things rolling while other teams are idle. Some coaches might not want this weekend off at this point in the season.”

On the Line: The Falcons can also finish as high as sixth, but a more reasonable goal is to avoid the play-in game, which they can do with a Mercyhurst win, or by getting two points against RIT.
Best Finish: Seventh
Worst Finish: Ninth
Games Remaining: RIT (2)

The Scoop: Even though the Falcons were swept last weekend by Army, coach Ryan Soderquist liked what he saw in net for his squad. He’s been alternating goaltenders, trying to find the hot hand, and he says both senior Ray Jean and sophomore Jason Kearney played well.

“Kearney played great on Friday,” said Soderquist. “He gave us an opportunity to win the game. It was 2-1 late into the third and the third goal Army scored was a good goal where he didn’t stand a chance. And Ray was solid on Saturday.”

On the Line: The Griffs’ situation is pretty simple — beat Mercyhurst or they’re in the play-in game.
Best Finish: Seventh
Worst Finish: Ninth
Games Remaining Mercyhurst

The Scoop: Canisius has beaten every team in Atlantic Hockey this season except for Bentley, so they’ll be no pushover regardless of who they meet in the playoffs. “We like how we’ve played as of late,” said coach Dave Smith. “We’d prefer not to play in the play-in game, but if you do, and you’re playing a team below you in the standings, you should win. If you don’t do that, you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs anyway. You need to be sharp at this point in the season.”

On the Line: Even though the Yellow Jackets picked up three points last weekend, wins by teams ahead of them in the standings have relegated AIC to the play-in game. The ‘Jackets will travel to either Mercyhurst, Canisius, or Bentley.
Best Finish: Tenth
Worst Finish: Tenth
Games Remaining: Air Force (2)

The Scoop: AIC could be the team nobody wants to play. The Yellow Jackets have been a .500 team in the league since a rough start. “Obviously we had a rough start at 0-12,” said coach Gary Wright. “But we’re 5-5-1 and playing really well right now. We’ve been much more competitive, even in the games we lost.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for February 12, 2007:
Andrew Ramsey – Air Force
– Ramsey figured in six of the seven goals scored by the Falcons last weekend in a split with Canisius. The senior from Noblesville, Ind., had a goal and an assist on Friday and two goals and two assists on Saturday. He now has 40 points on the season and 105 in his career.

Goaltender of the Week for February 12, 2007:
Josh Kassel, Army
– The sophomore wins the award for the fifth time this season. He stopped 43 of 46 shots last weekend to lead the Black Knights in a 3-1, 4-2 sweep of Bentley. Kassel has a 2.25 GAA and a .916 save percentage in league play this season.

Rookie of the Week for February 12, 2007:
Jeff Kajner, Air Force
– The rookie from Las Vegas, Nev., had five points last weekend, including a goal on Friday and a goal and three assists on Saturday.

Hobey Hopeful

The 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker award will be announced soon, and I would expect to see Air Force’s Eric Ehn on the list. If not, it will be a crime. Ehn has the numbers and the character that this award is made for — it is, after all, named after a military pilot. What could be more appropriate? The precedent has set for a player from outside the “Big Four” conferences to be a finalist — Reid Cashman was in 2005, when Quinnipiac was in Atlantic Hockey. And Ehn is having a better season than Cashman did that year.

Ehn is leading the nation in scoring going into the final weekend of the regular season with 55 points. He is only a junior, and that may hurt him a bit, but I defy the voters to keep him out. The Hobey Hat Trick (top three finalists) may be a long shot, but top 10? Absolutely.

Around the League

Team Notes

Air Force: With five points last weekend, Eric Ehn is again the nation’s leading scorer with 55 points (22 goals, 33 assists). That’s the most points scored in a season by an Air Force player since Bob Sajevic had 64 in 1979-80. The senior class (Billy Devoney, Peter Foster, Brian Gineo, Jay Medenwaldt, Andrew Ramsey, Brian Reese, Ben Worker and Theo Zacour) has won more Division I games (53) than any other at the Academy.

American International: Friday’s 2-1 win over UConn was the first time this season that AIC has come from behind to win when trailing after two periods. AIC is 5-5-1 in its last 11 conference games. A 2-2 tie against the Huskies on Saturday and Wayne State’s 4-4 tie with Niagara means that there are no untied Division I teams this season.

Holy Cross: The Crusaders’ senior class (Tanner Fogarty, Rob Godfrey, Jon Landry, Sean Nappo and James Sixsmith) has 75 total wins to date, second-most in school history. So far they’ve claimed two Atlantic Hockey titles and one NCAA tournament victory.

Mercyhurst: The Lakers won at RIT last weekend for the first time in eight tries dating back to 1992. Senior goalie Mike Ella got the win, his first since December 10, 2005.

Sacred Heart: Senior goaltender Jason Smith recorded his 36th career win on Saturday night, tying the school record for wins in a career by a netminder.


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