Thanks…and No Thanks
There are plenty of things for the teams in Atlantic Hockey to be thankful for at this point in the season, as well as some things not to appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday, let’s play a game of Thanks…and No Thanks.
Thanks: Wow. The Falcons are off to their best start ever, and are ranked higher (11th) than any AHA/MAAC team in history. Air Force has a whopping nine-point lead in the standings, and is unbeaten at home since last January, including last weekend’s 8-1, 7-1 demolition of Sacred Heart in front of record crowds. The Falcons have the top-ranked offense (5.17 goals per game), the top-ranked power play (27.7%) and the third-best defense (1.25 goals allowed per game) in the nation.
No Thanks: The only negative so far for the Falcons is the nagging question of just how good they really are. Air Force has yet to face a team with a record over .500. This weekend, the Falcons square off with a pair of WCHA powerhouses, No. 3 Colorado College and ninth-ranked Denver. These games will go a long way in establishing the reputation of not just Air Force, but the AHA in general. Nothing like a little pressure.
Thanks: The Black Knights are the most-disciplined team in the league, averaging just under five minors a game.
No Thanks: Army has three quality goaltenders, including All-American Josh Kassel, but the Black Knights are tied for the worst GAA in the league (4.20 goals per game allowed). All three netminders saw action last weekend at Mercyhurst, where Army was swept 6-2 and 6-3.
Thanks: It’s early, but the Yellow Jackets are in sole possession of fifth place, a point out of second, albeit having played more league games than anyone else so far. Freshmen Michael Penny and Neilsson Arcibal are leading the way.
No Thanks: Three of AIC’s four conference wins have come on home ice, but the Yellow Jackets have only seven games left at the Olympia Ice Center. Next weekend’s series against Mercyhurst is the last time AIC will play both games of a weekend series at home this season.
Thanks: The Falcons are thankful for an upside-down AHA standings, at least where they’re concerned. Bentley was picked to finish second to last in the league in the preseason poll, but is currently tied for second place in the conference. Seniors Jeff Gumaer and Dain Prewitt are leading the way with six goals each, accounting for 12 of Bentley’s 25 goals to date.
No Thanks: On Tuesday, AIC snapped a couple of nice streaks the Falcons had going. Bentley was undefeated in its previous five league games, and came into the game 3-0 at home for the first time in 10 years.
Thanks: The Griffs are thankful for finishing strong. They’ve scored 26 goals in league play so far, and 14 of them have come in the third period.
No Thanks: Canisius has just four goals in 49 power-play attempts, which is lowest in the league.
Thanks: The Huskies are grateful for the Freitas Ice Forum, where they are playing much better than on the road this season. UConn is 3-9 overall but 3-2 on home ice, with one-goal losses to Yale and RIT.
No Thanks: Away from the friendly confines, the Huskies are 0-6 and have been outscored 28-7.
Thanks: If you can possibly be grateful for a loss, then the Crusaders should be after sticking with — and for a good stretch of the game, outplaying — eighth-ranked Boston University in a 3-2 loss. “You’ve got to give Holy Cross credit for coming in and playing hard,” said Terriers coach Jack Parker after the game.
No Thanks: Holy Cross had the best power play in the league last season and started off the season on fire with the man advantage. But the Crusaders have cooled off to the point where they are now clicking at just 10% and have allowed four shorthanded goals.
Thanks: The Lakers finally broke out of their early-season doldrums last weekend, sweeping Army on home ice. The 12 goals scored by Mercyhurst was its most on a weekend in almost two years. After a killer non-conference schedule saw them go 0-6 to open the season, the Lakers didn’t fare much better in league play, going 1-2-1 in their first four conference games.
No Thanks: The Lakers play nine of their next ten games away from home. In all, they’ll play 14 of their first 19 games on the road this season. Mercyhurst has no non-conference games at home this season.
Thanks: The Tigers are grateful for fan support, at home as well as on the road. RIT has the second-best (behind Air Force) attendance in the league and no AHA team’s fans travel better than the Tigers’. Three busloads of RIT faithful were at game at Niagara on Nov. 7, and last Saturday’s game at UConn had over 100 orange-clad fans.
No Thanks: The Tigers typically excel on special teams, but this season RIT’s penalty kill, while scoring five shorthanded goals, is second-worst in the league and fifth-worst in Division I.
Thanks: The Pioneers are thankful for home cooking. Their only losses on home ice this season were to Air Force.
No Thanks: Last weekend’s 8-1, 7-1 beatdown at the hands of Air Force in Colorado Springs was the most lopsided for the Pioneers in league play in 10 seasons.
Players of the Week for November 24, 2008
Jeff Hajner — Air Force
The junior forward had three goals and three assists in a sweep of Sacred Heart. He also won an impressive 26 of the 31 draws he took on the weekend.
Goaltender of the Week for November 24, 2008:
Dan Ramirez — AIC
Ramirez stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 5-1 win over Holy Cross. He’s won his last three starts on home ice.
Rookie of the Week for November 24, 2008:
Phil Ginand — Mercyhurst
Ginand scored his first collegiate goal and chipped in three assists to help the Lakers to a home ice sweep of Army.
Doing the Right Thing
It seems inevitable that at some point in the not-too-distant future, Atlantic Hockey will be expanding. It was anticipated that Navy would be elevating its program, perhaps to coincide with hosting this year’s Frozen Four, but that looks less and less likely.
What does seem likely is that the CHA will disband. The league is on life support right now. Bemidji State is trying like heck to get into the WCHA, and Niagara and Robert Morris are looking to Atlantic Hockey (somewhat reluctantly since it will mean cutting scholarships) for salvation.
The league is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Taking Niagara and Robert Morris unilaterally will put the CHA out of its misery and leave Bemidji and Alabama-Huntsville without a league and possibly a future. But it would guarantee the survival of Niagara and Robert Morris. I think that when push comes to shove, the league will take the two teams.
So, assuming that expansion will take place, what does that mean for the conference? It certainly doesn’t make things any easier with a 12-team league fighting for one NCAA bid while the one previously reserved for the CHA goes back into the “at-large” pool.
If Atlantic Hockey does take Niagara and Robert Morris, the league should insist on taking the CHA’s Automatic Qualifier as well. The expansion from a 12-team to a 16-team NCAA field wouldn’t have happened without the establishment of the CHA and the MAAC/AHA. For a few years just prior to the establishment of those leagues, each of the four conferences was guaranteed an opportunity for two NCAA bids — one for the regular-season champions and one for the playoff winners.
If the same team won both, then the second bid went into the “at-large” pool. This was a great system since it put more of an emphasis on the regular season. But there was no way the upstart CHA and MAAC were getting more than one autobid, so that system went by the wayside.
What we really need is not fewer leagues with more teams, but more leagues with fewer teams. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon, which I think is a mistake for those smaller schools in the major conferences, which would rather be a little fish in a big pond, trading the chance for a trip to the NCAAs for the prestige of playing in a “Big Four” conference.
Convincing them that seven conferences with eight teams each is better than five conferences with 10-12 teams each is a tall order, because having Michigan or Boston College on the schedule is a big deal.
So I’m making this prediction: I think Atlantic Hockey will do the right thing for college hockey, and if that means going to 12 teams with a single AQ, so be it.
Have a safe and happy holiday.