This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 31, 2008

It’s a Goaltender’s League

Atlantic Hockey is a goaltender’s league. It’s a key to the conference’s parity, the reason why any team can (and has) beaten every other, the reason why the standings are so close.

The loss of Eric Ehn, either until the playoffs or for the rest of his college hockey career, removes the marquee player, the face of the league, from the spotlight. So now perhaps the college hockey world will turn its attention to what those of us who follow the league have known all along — there are some dynamite goaltenders in this league.

“Everybody has a good goalie,” said Army coach Brian Riley, whose team has won three consecutive 2-1 contests, all by scoring twice in the third period to erase 1-0 deficits. “You’re not going to see a lot of 7-6 games, especially in the playoffs.”

Riley has three pretty good goalies, but the hot hand lately has belonged to junior Josh Kassel, who spearheaded the Black Knights’ run last season that fell just short in the AHA title game.

Last weekend, Kassel stopped 58 of 60 shots to lead Army to a sweep of archrival Air Force. Both games were played in front of huge crowds and national TV audiences.

“‘Kash’ is playing with a lot of confidence,” said Riley. “It started the weekend before against Canisius. The second night was a game we had to win (after a 3-0 loss the night before). He played really well and earned the right to start against Air Force.

“We’re living dangerously only scoring two goals a game, but playing (Air Force) and giving up only two goals on the weekend was quite an accomplishment.”

The three wins in a row halted a two-month skid for the Black Knights, who had won just one game since November 17.

“We weren’t playing bad,” said Riley. “We were getting shots but they weren’t going in. We were having some fluky goals scored against us. Last Saturday against Canisius we scored kind of a fluky goal. We felt like maybe the tide was turning. That win was big for us going into the weekend with Air Force.”

Army hosts another hot team with a hot goaltender, Connecticut, this weekend.

“We’re expecting low-scoring games,” said Riley. “Both goalies are playing well right now, and both teams are doing a good job killing penalties and that starts with your goalie.”

The Black Knights picked up at least two points on every other team last weekend and vaulted into fourth. UConn was in the AHA basement two weeks ago, but is now tied for sixth, just three points behind Army. Just five points separate second from ninth place.

“It’s crazy,” said Riley. “At this point in the season last year, you could start to pencil in who were going be the top-tier teams, who was going to be in the middle, and at the bottom. But this year it’s wide open. I haven’t learned all the tie-breakers yet, but I’m sure I’m going to need to.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for January 28, 2008:
Beau Erickson — Connecticut

It’s rare for a goalie to be named Player of the Week, but Erickson is a worthy candidate, stopping 70 of 71 shots last weekend as UConn took three points from RIT. It was the second straight weekend Erickson had made 70 saves. He’s averaging over 30 saves a game and now has 691 on the season, second in the nation.

Goaltender of the Week for January 28, 2008:
Josh Kassel — Army

Kassel made 58 saves last weekend in a huge pair of 2-1 wins over Air Force.

Rookie of the Week for January 28, 2008:
Erik Peterson — Bentley

The freshman had four goals last weekend, two each in a pair of 3-3 ties with Mercyhurst.
Peterson is now tied for the league lead among rookie scorers and leads the Falcons with 12 goals.

Growing Up

The Connecticut Huskies have had their share of highs and lows this season, including finding themselves in the AHA basement two weeks ago. But Bruce Marshall’s young team is showing more consistency lately, taking six points in its last two series with wins and ties against Mercyhurst and RIT. Goaltender Beau Erickson made 70 saves in each series, but it wasn’t just goaltending that’s led to UConn’s recent success.

“We’re a work in progress,” said Marshall. “We’ve got 15 freshmen and just one senior captain (Charles Solberg). We’ve had to overcome injuries like everybody else. But it’s been a lot of work by everybody.”

Erickson has been the mainstay, making over 30 saves a game. The sophomore is already fourth all-time on the school’s save list for the D-I era with 1,239 so far.

“Beau has been the perfect guy for the job,” said Marshall. “He’s steady. He doesn’t get rattled. His preparation has been excellent.”

Marshall said that his team defense is better as well, but he wants his offense to turn up the gas.

“Even games where we’ve been outshot 2-1 it’s not feeling like we’re getting peppered,” he said. “We’re getting chances but we’re not shooting as much as we need to. Maybe that comes with being a young team. Everybody’s passing the puck and trying not to be selfish. We’re telling them to be more selfish.”

One of the hardest things to do with a young team is get consistency, to make sure that the highs aren’t too high and the lows don’t bury a team. Marshall says his team is learning.

“They need to understand dosage,” he said. “You’re not going to get cured by swallowing the whole bottle at once. When they play well one night, it’s not a cure-all. We have a tough series ahead of us. We need to stay focused for all 60 minutes.”

Around the League

Air Force: The Ehn-less Falcons have scored just three goals in their last three games, and Air Force’s current three-game losing streak is its longest this season.

AIC: The Yellow Jackets suffered heartbreak on Sunday at Dartmouth, giving up a goal with one second to play and having to settle for a 3-3 tie. AIC has been a tough opponent for ECAC teams this season, also tying RPI and losing by a single goal at Quinnipiac.

Canisius: The Griffs’ penalty-killing streak came to end last weekend against Merrimack, when they finally surrendered a power-play goal after stopping 37 consecutive attempts, a school record.

Mercyhurst: The Lakers had tied Bentley only twice in 29 previous meetings, but played to a pair of 3-3 games with the Falcons last weekend. Mercyhurst has already played in seven overtime contests this season (0-2-5)