Newcomers again look to climb to top of Atlantic Hockey in 2010-11

“Bigger and Better” would be the way to describe the 2010-11 Atlantic Hockey season. The league has expanded from 10 teams to 12, welcoming Niagara and Robert Morris.

Senior forward Chris Kushneriuk and Robert Morris hope to make a big splash in the program's first season in Atlantic Hockey (photo: Robert Morris Athletics).

Senior forward Chris Kushneriuk and Robert Morris hope to make a big splash in the program’s first season in Atlantic Hockey (photo: Robert Morris Athletics).

The last time the AHA expanded was 2006, when, coming off Holy Cross’ monumental win over Minnesota in the NCAA tournament, Air Force and Rochester Institute of Technology came aboard. This time around, the league is celebrating another record-setting postseason that culminated with RIT advancing to the Frozen Four.

The Tigers and Falcons have collected most of the hardware since joining the AHA, accounting for three of the last four regular season championships (one shared between the two) and all four playoff titles.

Can Robert Morris and Niagara be as successful out of the gate?

“No one really knows what to expect out of us and Niagara,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “We’ll see soon enough where we stack up. We’ll be playing a lot of teams we haven’t seen before, in buildings we haven’t been in before. It’s an exciting change for us.”

A big change for all 12 teams is a new league schedule. Teams are aligned into regional “pods” with American International, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart in the Eastern pod and Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT and Robert Morris in the Western pod.

Each team will play the other five teams in its pod three times and the six teams in the other region twice.

A single set of standings will be kept, but the top two teams in each pod will get byes in the first round of the playoffs, and seedings will be by region.

For the quarterfinals, the overall standings will be used to seed the teams, with the four winners advancing to Rochester as in years past.

Click on any team name at the top of a section below to view its individual season preview. Teams are listed in order of predicted finish by

1. RIT

2009-10 overall record: 28-12-1
2009-10 AHA record: 22-5-2
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: First
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): First
Outlook: The Tigers are coming off their most successful season since moving up to Division I, so they’re the favorite until another team can prove otherwise. They’ll be strong up front, but gaps in goaltending and the blue line will need to be filled if the Tigers want to repeat.

2. Robert Morris

2009-10 overall record: 10-19-6
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Fourth (tie)
Outlook: The Colonials are mature, deep, and know how to win non-conference games, something the league struggled with last season.

3. Mercyhurst

2009-10 overall record: 15-20-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 15-10-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Fourth
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Second
Outlook: The Lakers return almost their entire squad and look to improve on an uncharacteristically early playoff exit last season.

4. Air Force

2009-10 overall record: 16-15-6
2009-10 AHA record: 14-8-6
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Third
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Third
Outlook: The Falcons’ main question is in net after the departure of Andrew Volkening. Jacques Lamoureux is back and is looking to lead an offense that sputtered at times last season.

5. Niagara

2009-10 overall record: 10-20-4
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Fourth (tie)
Outlook: Coming off their worst season since moving to D-I in 1996, the Purple Eagles are hoping a change in leagues will be the cure for what ailed them.

6. Canisius

2009-10 overall record: 17-15-5
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 13-11-4
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Fifth
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Sixth
Outlook: The Golden Griffins’ steady improvement continued last season with their first trip to the semifinals under coach Dave Smith. There’s no reason to think it can’t happen again.

7. Sacred Heart

2009-10 overall record: 21-13-4
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 16-9-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Second
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches poll): Seventh
Outlook: Coming off a 12-win season in 2008-09 and picked to finish eighth last season, the Pioneers exceeded expectations. They have enough to do it again.

8. Holy Cross

2009-10 overall record: 12-19-6
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 10-13-5
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Seventh
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Eighth
Outlook: The Crusaders are looking to get out of a two-year funk and will try to build on last year’s late-season surge.

9. Army

2009-10 overall record: 11-18-7
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 10-12-6
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Sixth
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Ninth
Outlook: The Black Knights are young but solid defensively. Brian Riley’s squad will have to replace some players who logged a lot of ice time.

10. Bentley

2009-10 overall record: 12-19-4
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 10-15-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Eighth
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): 10th
Outlook: The Falcons were bitten by the injury bug last season and will improve if they can stay healthy and get consistent goaltending.

11. Connecticut

2009-10 overall record: 7-27-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 6-19-3
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: Ninth
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): 11th
Outlook: The Huskies return almost intact and will be better than last season. But so will many of the teams ahead of them.

12. American International

2009-10 overall record: 5-24-4
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey record: 5-19-4
2009-10 Atlantic Hockey finish: 10th
2010-11 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): 12th
Outlook: The Yellow Jackets have won just 10 games over the last two seasons, and their fate will depend on how fast a talented freshman class can get up to speed.