This Week in Atlantic Hockey: March 13, 2008

On To Rochester

The top five teams advanced to the Final Five in Rochester, but not without some drama. Three games went to overtime on Saturday night and Sacred Heart was pressed to a third game by UConn.

RIT needed two overtime games to eliminate Holy Cross. The Tigers will play Air Force, which had an easier time with Bentley (9-2, 3-1) in the second semifinal on Saturday. Army, which swept AIC, will await the winner of Friday’s contest between Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart.

Making History, Then Making It Again

In Friday’s 5-4 overtime victory over Holy Cross, RIT senior Matt Smith scored three goals, the first hat trick in the school’s short Division I history.

On Saturday, he did it again. Smith had three more goals, including the game winner in overtime, as RIT again defeated the Crusaders 5-4.

“Guys were feeding me the puck and I was getting lucky,” Smith told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after the game. “It was great to get two overtime wins; it just shows the character of the guys in the locker room.”

Smith now has 27 goals on the year and is tied for second in the nation. His 17 power-play goals lead the country. He’s second in the nation in shots on goal with 186.

“He’s been scoring goals all year,” said Wilson. “That’s what he does best. He’s the guy willing to take on the responsibility to be the hero or the goat.”

Looking Back

I talked with AHA commissioner Bob DeGregorio last Friday, and got his thoughts on the season to date.

“It’s been exciting,” he said. “Going into the last two weekends, everything was still up in the air. Everybody could have knocked off anyone, and that’s the way it’s been in the league all season.”

Goaltending, which can be the great equalizer, has become the face of the AHA, according to DeGregorio.

“I think it’s been the signature of our league,” he said. “Every team has a goalie that on any given night can beat you. You’re not going to get a puck by him.”

I asked DeGregorio if instead of AHA teams knocking each other off all season, if it wouldn’t be better for the league if a team emerged from the pack and put up a 27-win season like Holy Cross did two years ago, when the Crusaders appeared in the national rankings and went all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals.

“Having a team with 27 wins would bring visibility to the league, being ranked in the national polls,” he said. “But I don’t know if you’re going to see that with the way the league is now, with so many teams improving and the gaps narrowing (between the top and bottom teams).

“Instead we need more of the kind of wins we had this season, with Air Force beating Denver, RIT beating Cornell and Minnesota, and Holy Cross beating Providence. We’re having our share of good contests outside the league, and we need to keep that going.”

What to Expect

If there is an advantage to being the second or third seed in this format, it’s knowing who you’ll be playing. Air Force and RIT are set to play Saturday night, while Army must wait until the outcome of Friday night’s game to see who it will play Saturday afternoon.

“It does give you the opportunity to focus on a team now,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “But we could be playing anyone based on how things go. We’ll prepare for Air Force, but then also for Army should both teams be able to advance. We’ll probably do less preparation for Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst because we’ve played them recently.”

“At this stage, I don’t think it really matters,” said Army coach Brian Riley, whose team must wait until Friday night to know who it will play on Saturday. “We’ve played against all these teams. At his point you’re focused on your own team and doing the things you need to do to be successful.

“No matter who we play this weekend, it’s going to be a tough game. All the games have the potential to be great games looking at the matchups. And all of the goaltenders are exceptional. Every team has a goalie that can steal a game.”

Riley has the top goaltender. Josh Kassel has a league-best 1.75 GAA and .931 save percentage. Kassel’s hot streak that started in January has mirrored the Black Knights’ success, and that’s no coincidence.

“No question, we’re not where we are without him,” said Riley.

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for March 10, 2008
Matt Smith – RIT

Smith had an amazing six goals to help the Tigers to a pair of overtime 5-4 win over Holy Cross. He had back-to-back hat tricks, the first two in RIT’s Division I history. Smith’s sixth and final goal was the winner in Game 2.

Goaltender of the Week for March 10, 2008:
Matt Lundin – Mercyhurst
Lundin stopped 69 of 71 shots last weekend to lead the Lakers to a 4-1 and 2-1 (OT) sweep of Canisius.

Rookie of the Week for March 10, 2008:
Derrick Burnett – Air Force

Burnett had a goal and three assists to help the host Falcons to a sweep of Bentley. He leads all Air Force rookies in scoring with 25 points.

My All-AHA Teams

Even more so than last season, these were difficult choices. The real awards will be announced on Thursday night, probably before you read this. But here’s one writer’s opinion, based on games I saw this year.

First Team
F Simon Lambert, Sr., RIT
F Owen Meyer, So., Army
F Alexandre Parent, Sr., Sacred Heart
D Dan Ringwald, So., RIT
D Greg Flynn, Jr., Air Force
G Josh Kassel, Jr., Army

Second Team
F Eric Ehn, Sr., Air Force
F Luke Flicek, Sr., Army
F Matt Smith, Sr., RIT
D Dave Grimson, Jr., Sacred Heart
D Zach McKelvie, Jr., Army
G Beau Erickson, So., Connecticut

Third Team
F Ben Cottreau, Sr., Mercyhurst
F Bear Trapp, Jr., Sacred Heart
F Brent Olson, Jr., Air Force
D Paul Ferraro, Jr., Sacred Heart
D Al Mazur, So., RIT
G Andrew Loewen, So., Canisius
Honorable Mention: Kyle Bushee (Canisius), Jeff Hajner (Air Force), Bryce Hollweg (Army ), Dave Jarman (Sacred Heart), Mike Mayra (Air Force), Louis Menard (RIT), Erik Peterson (Bentley), Dain Prewitt (Bentley), Dale Reinhardt (Holy Cross), Jereme Tendler (AIC), Andrew Volkening (Air Force)

F Erik Peterson, Bentley
F Vincent Scarsella, Canisius
F Everett Sheen, Holy Cross
D Jeff Terminesi, Mercyhurst
D Mark Znudas, Holy Cross
G Joe Calvi, Bentley
Honorable Mention: Derrick Burnett (Air Force), Dustin Cloutier (Bentley), Sean Murphy (RIT), Andrew Olson (Connecticut), Scott Pitt (Mercyhurst), Dan Ramirez (AIC), Adam Roy (Holy Cross)

Rookie of the Year: Erik Peterson, Bentley
Defenseman of the Year: Dan Ringwald, RIT
Goalie of the Year: Josh Kassel, Army
Player of the Year: Simon Lambert, RIT
Coach of the Year: Brian Riley, Army

Thanks, and Good Night

While you’ll still see me writing from Blue Cross Arena (and babbling too, as I’m doing some color work on the B2 broadcasts) and from Lake Placid and Denver, this is my last AHA column of the season.

As usual, I’ve got many people to thank. I’m grateful to the coaches and players that took the time to talk to me this year, as well as the Sports Information Directors at all ten schools. Special thanks to AHA SID Dave Rourke for his help and for putting up with my many phone calls and emails.

Thanks to my fellow RIT broadcasters, Randy Bloechl, Ed Trefzger and Scott Biggar. You made the long road trips fun and never dull. We’re proud to be bringing you the B2 broadcasts for all the games this weekend.

Thanks to my editor, Scott Brown, who manages with great skill to make me a bearable read, and to all the writers at See you in Lake Placid or Denver.

And especially, thanks to Kathleen and the boys for putting up with the travel and the late nights with my laptop.

And finally, with the New York State high school hockey championships being contested in Utica, N.Y., last weekend, I thought a great deal about Dan Barrows. As much as Dan loved RIT hockey, which he had followed from the early days of the program, he loved high school hockey more.

He was the official historian for high school hockey in the Rochester, N.Y., area, as well as the state’s high school hockey statistician. Dan would have been in Utica this past weekend, especially excited to see two teams from the Rochester area make it to the championships. It would have been a tough choice between that and his beloved Tigers’ first Division I playoff games, but high school would have won out, no doubt.

Dan passed away in November, and is terribly missed by his many friends. Before games at RIT, I have made it a habit to walk around the rink during warmups, and I usually pause in Dan’s spot on the railing in the northeast corner of Ritter Arena, where he would hold court. How much was Dan respected in the hockey community? After the Tigers won their first Division I playoff game in school history in overtime on Friday, linesman Chris Foote fished the puck out of the net, look for Dan’s widow Laurie in the crowd, and flipped it to her.

Laurie wasn’t at the game on Saturday to see the Tigers win again in overtime. She was in Utica, accepting a plaque on Dan’s behalf, as he was inducted into the New York High School Hockey Hall of Fame.

The season ends this weekend for all but one Atlantic Hockey team, and it will end soon enough for everyone. But spring will soon be here and July is right around the corner, when dry-land training for next year’s high school season will start up again. When I drop my son off for his early-morning sessions, I’ll think of the approaching high school season, and I’ll think of Dan again.