This Week in Atlantic Hockey: March 6, 2008

The NCAAs Start Now

With no AHA teams on the “Under Consideration” list, it’s obvious that only the league’s tournament champion is going to the NCAAs. So that makes the AHA playoffs essentially an extension of the big dance. Lose, and you go home. Your seniors have played their last game.

So expect things to be turned up a notch as the playoffs start. Here’s a look at each of the five matchups.

No. 10 AIC at No. 1 Army

How They Got Here: The Yellow Jackets (8-21-5) looked like they were ready to make a move in the standings after a sweep of Bentley in early February, but went 0-5-1 in their last six games to again finish in the basement. The Black Knights (17-13-1) went through a miserable stretch from Thanksgiving to mid-January that saw them win just once in 12 contests (1-8-3). But Army and goaltender Josh Kassel got hot after that, going 11-1-1 down the stretch to move from seventh to first place. It’s the first regular season title in the 105-year history of the program. Army won all four meetings between the two teams this season.

How Army Wins: Get their usual stellar goaltending and score goals the way they have in the last three games.

How AIC Wins: Keep the Black Knight’s potent first line in check, and get playoff-caliber goaltending. Both Tom Fenton and Dan Ramirez have the ability to steal a game. But can they steal two?

Black Knights to Watch: Josh Kassel (Goaltender, 1.97 GAA; .925 save percentage), Luke Flicek (Forward, 37 points), Owen Meyer (Forward, 38 points), Bryce Hollweg (Forward, 38 points)

Yellow Jackets to Watch: Jereme Tendler (Forward, 21 points), Chris Bolognino (Defense, 15 points), Dan Ramirez (Goaltender, .897 Save Percentage)

Outlook: “We sure didn’t look like a top team in the middle of the season,” said Army Coach Brian Riley. “When we lost to Canisius (on January 18) we were five games under .500 and in seventh place. But things really came together.”

The Black Knights have been one of the hottest teams in college hockey over the past two months, going 11-1-1 en route to their first regular season title in the 105-year history of the program.

“We learned to play in the moment,” said Riley. “Not to get too caught up in a successful weekend and realizing that it doesn’t mean much if you don’t so well the next time you play. We really have been taking things one game at a time and not looking too far ahead.”

They’ll need to keep that mindset against an AIC squad that’s pulled off its share of upsets this season.

“They’re a good team,” said Riley. “One game we outscored them by a lot, but the rest were good, hard fought games. They’ve shown that they can beat the top teams in the league. It’s a whole new season, and we have to ready.

“It’ll be playoff hockey. Low scoring, goaltending and special teams. It always comes down to that.”

No. 9 Holy Cross at No. 2 RIT

How They Got Here: The Tigers (17-11-6) got off to a slow start, but have just one loss in their last eight games, and held a tight grip on second or third place for the latter part of the season. The Crusaders (10-17-7) won just twice in their final ten games of the regular season to fall into the ninth slot. RIT swept a pair of games at Holy Cross in the teams’ only other meeting this season.

How Holy Cross Wins: Win the special teams battle, get points from its big first line (the whole team is having trouble scoring right now), and be more physical than in its last meeting with the Tigers. Take advantage of the Tiger’s inexperience in the post season — RIT has just six players on the roster who have been involved in a playoff game — a loss to Manhattanville in the ECAC West semifinals on March 4, 2005, the team’s final game in Division III.

How RIT Wins: Shut down the Reinhardt-Sheahan-Sheen line the way the Tigers did back in early January, and stay out of the box. Holy Cross has the third ranked power play in D-I (23.0%). The Tigers are ranked seventh (21.9%) but take way more penalties (18.1 minutes per game compared to 10.4 minutes per game for the Crusaders).

Tigers to Watch: Simon Lambert (Forward, 45 points), Matt Smith (Forward, 33 points), Dan Ringwald (Defense, 23 points), Louis Menard (Goaltender, .909 save percentage)

Crusaders to Watch: Brodie Sheahan (Forward, 32 points), Dave Reinhardt (Forward, 24 points), Everett Sheen (Forward, 23 points), Adam Roy (Goaltender, .915 save percentage)

Outlook: RIT has picked the right time to get its power play in gear and get scoring from its third and fourth lines. The Tigers have scored a power play goal in each of their last nine games, and are click at a 40.5% rate over that span. Anton Kharin, who had 14 goals as a freshman last season and was on the league’s all-rookie team, had just one goal heading into last weekend, but he tallied three to help the Tigers sweep Bentley.

The problem that’s been plaguing Holy Cross for the better part of the season is a basic one — not putting the puck in the net. The Crusaders offense ranks ninth out of ten teams in the league.

“It’s pretty simple — we’re just not scoring,” said coach Paul Pearl.” We’ve been playing better defense for a while now but can’t score to take advantage of that.”

I asked Pearl if other teams are keying on his top line (Reinhardt-Sheahan-Sheen), which has carried the bulk of the scoring load.

“It’s everybody,” he said. “Those guys don’t always skate together. We’ve had lots of guys skating together but everybody is struggling. The defense and goaltending are strong in this league, but we have to do a better job of getting to the net and getting good scoring chances.”

The Crusaders power play has been a bright spot, and they’ll need to capitalize on an RIT team that takes more than its share of penalties.

“We’re going to have to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Pearl. “We’ve got a good goaltender. They’ve got a good goaltender. They’re a talented team. It’s going to be good playoff hockey in front of a big crowd.”

No. 8 Bentley at No. 3 Air Force

How They Got Here: Bentley (9-19-6) fell from sixth to eighth place last weekend in a bottled up AHA standings by getting swept at RIT. Air Force (17-11-6) took three of four points from AIC at home last weekend to lock up the critical third playoff seed. The 17 wins by the Falcons is a school record. The teams met four times this season with Air Force holding a 2-1-1 advantage.

How Bentley Wins: Get healthy (Erik Peterson was dinged up last weekend in the RIT series and Jeff Gumaer has missed the last six games) and get as many shots as they can on Andrew Volkening. The (Air Force) Falcons are allowing only 23 shots a game this season. Bentley has pulled off three upsets in the AHA postseason in the last five years.

How Air Force Wins: Play its game, which is to outwork its opponents and thereby limit scoring chances. The (Air Force) Falcons made the adjustment to life without Eric Ehn, and are undefeated in their last five games.

(Air Force) Falcons to Watch: Brent Olson (Forward, 31 Points), Jeff Hajner (Forward, 30 Points), Greg Flynn (Defense, 26 Points), Andrew Volkening (Goaltender, 2.14 GAA)

(Bentley) Falcons to watch: Dain Prewitt (Forward, 30 points), Erik Peterson (Forward 27 points, Marc Menzione (Forward, 25 points), Joe Calvi (Goaltender, .915 save percentage)

Outlook: You’d think that Air Force coach Frank Serratore would be happy with three points last weekend and a third place seed, thus avoiding any chance of having to play in next Friday’s play-in game should his Falcons advance.

“We didn’t sweep any series at home this season,” said Serratore, whose team was able to take two from Quinnipiac to start the season, but failed to take more than three points at home against Atlantic Hockey competition. “That was a big disappointment.”

Last weekend, AIC managed a tie at Air Force before getting blown out 5-0 the following evening.

“They played a very good game (on Friday),” Serratore said. “They were very prepared.”

The Air Force coach says his team needs to do a better job against Bentley.

“We better come prepared,” he said. “We better win the first night because we haven’t been able to win two in a row (at home) all season. We’re going to have to keep their top line off the board and get to Calvi, who’s a very good goalie. Depth is our strength. We’ve got guys on the third and fourth line with good numbers.”

At least this time, Air Force will have three chances to get two wins at home.

“If you can’t beat someone twice in your own barn, you don’t deserve to advance,” Serratore said.

No. 7 UConn at No. 4 Sacred Heart

How They Got Here: The Pioneers (14-17-3) flirted with first place most of the season but went 2-4 over their last three weekends to finish as the fourth seed. Connecticut (12-19-3) was in the AHA basement three weeks ago but won their final four games. Sacred Heart took all four games against the Huskies this season.

How Sacred Heart Wins: Use their home ice advantage (a league best 9-3-2) and get plenty of shots on Huskie netminder Beau Erickson. Win the special teams war (Sacred Heart leads in the nation in combined special teams with the second-best power play and the 29th-ranked penalty kill).

How UConn Wins: Keep the momentum going. Stay out of the box and win the goaltending battle.

Pioneers to Watch: Bear Trapp (Forward, 36 points), Alexandre Parent (Forward, 35 Points), Dave Jarman (Forward, 31 points), Stefan Drew (Goaltender, .909 save percentage).

Huskies to Watch: Chris Ochoa (Forward, 22 points), Andrew Olson (Forward, 20 points), Beau Erickson (Goaltender, .915 save percentage)

Outlook: The Huskies have had some success against their in-state rival, knocking them out of the playoffs two years ago. But Sacred Heart swept the season series this year. UConn is the hotter of the two teams right now, and is bolstered by the unexpected return of goaltender Beau Erickson, who was thought to the lost for the season after suffering a knee injury against Sacred Heart back on February 8.

“It was really loose at first,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall of his goalie’s knee. “But he made a really quick recovery and the most recent MRI showed no damage. He stood on ice the ice for the first time (a week ago) Tuesday and got in the net for real on Thursday, taking a typical workload of shots. We figured we’d start him Friday and see what happened. There was no sense breaking him in slowly because we need him to play two games on a weekend. He came in and played really well.”

Erickson pitched a shutout, and then allowed only two goals on Saturday.

“Sacred Heart’s a tough team, especially in their barn,” said Marshall of this weekend’s matchup. “We’re pretty young with just one senior and two juniors that play. We need to stay out of the box. They’ve got one of the top power plays (in the nation). We’re going to have to cash in on opportunities when we get them.”

Marshall says he’s wishing it was a one game series instead of a best-of-three, especially as the underdog.

“I liked the old system,” he said. “One and done. I think it makes things more exciting.”

No. 6 Canisius at No. 5 Mercyhurst

How They Got Here: These teams should be familiar with each other — they played four times during the regular season including last weekend with Canisius (11-18-6) holding a 2-1-1 advantage over the Lakers (11-18-7). Mercyhurst is winless in its last five games. Canisius has managed to get at least a point in all but one of its last ten conference series.

How Mercyhurst Wins: Eliminate costly mistakes (the Lakers recently went through a stretch where they allowed a shorthanded goal in four straight games) and forget last weekend. Use their home ice advantage, where they are 1-0-1 against the Griffs this season.

How Canisius Wins: Turn the games into shootouts (the teams combined for 18 goals last weekend) and win the special teams battles. Both squads like to run and gun and have goalies that can make the big save, so I think it will come down to special teams.

Lakers to Watch: Ben Cottreau (Forward, 32 points), Matt Pierce (Forward, 20 points), Scott Pitt (Forward, 20 points), Matt Lundin (Goaltender, .911 save percentage)

Griffins to Watch: Vincent Scarsella (Forward, 30 points), Josh Heidinger (Forward, 25 points), David Kasch (Forward, 25 points), Andrew Loewen (Goaltender, .911 save percentage)

Outlook: Canisius took three points from Mercyhurst last weekend to earn the sixth seed and the right to play…Mercyhurst.

“It should be a great series,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “You’ve got the two teams closest in the standings and we know each other pretty well.”

Smith says his team is peaking at the right time and points to two of his players in particular — freshman Vincent Scarcella and senior Kyle Bushee.

“Scarcella has 15 points in the third period this season,” he said. “He was big for us last weekend. And Bushee is one of the top defenseman in the league, probably in the top two.”

Smith expects a close series between two evenly matched teams.

“I think it will be good, physical playoff hockey,” he said. “It will come down to execution and goaltending. Hockey is a game of mistakes and whoever makes the fewest will come out on top.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for March 3, 2008
Chris Forsman — Canisius

The sophomore defenseman had a career-best four points with two goals and two assists in a 5-5 tie against Mercyhurst on Saturday. .

Goaltender of the Week for March 3, 2008:
Beau Erickson — Connecticut

Heeee’s baaaack. Reports of a season-ending injury to Erickson were apparently untrue. After a negative MRI, the sophomore returned to action, stopping 52 of 54 shots against Holy Cross to help the Huskies to their fourth win a row.

Rookie of the Week for March 3, 2008:
Vincent Scarsella — Canisius

The local product had a goal and three assists to help the Golden Griffins take three points from Mercyhurst. Scarsella has 30 points (8 goals, 22 assists) top among rookies in Atlantic Hockey.

Monthly Awards

Player of the Month for February, 2008
Simon Lambert — RIT

The senior had 15 points including nine goals in the month of February. Lambert leads the AHA in scoring with 34 points and is tied for fourth in the nation with 45 points overall.
Other players nominated: David Turco, (AIC), Erik Peterson (Bentley), Kyle Bushee (Canisius), Rob Forshner (Holy Cross), Matt Pierce (Mercyhurst), Alexandre Parent (Sacred Heart)

Goaltender of the Month for February, 2008:
Josh Kassel — Army

This was a no-brainer as Kassel put together one of the best months by any college goaltender ever. The junior had a 0.88 GAA and a .965 save percentage in February, leading Army to a 7-1-1 record.
Other goalies nominated: Andrew Volkening (Air Force) Taylor Anderson (Canisius), Louis Menard, (RIT), Stefan Drew (Sacred Heart)

Rookie of the Month for February, 2008:
Adam Roy — Holy Cross

The Crusaders didn’t have a lot of success in February (2-4-1) but it wasn’t because of Roy. He posted a 2.24 GAA and a .930 save percentage.
Other rookies nominated: Derrick Burnett (Air Force), Joe Calvi (Bentley), Cory Conacher (Canisius)


So who did a better job predicting the final AHA standings?

Place Actual Coaches Poll Yours Truly
1st Army RIT RIT
2nd RIT Air Force Air Force
3rd Air Force Army Mercyhurst
4th Sacred Heart Mercyhurst Army
5th Mercyhurst Sacred Heart Sacred Heart
6th Canisius Holy Cross Holy Cross
7th UConn UConn UConn
8th Bentley Canisius Bentley
9th Holy Cross Bentley Canisius

I think the coaches did a slightly better job. They had Army and Canisius slightly higher than I did, and I had Bentley closer to where it finished than the coaches did. The biggest surprises were Army, Canisius, and Holy Cross.