What would the Atlantic Hockey playoffs look like today? Don’t ask

We’re near the midway point of the Atlantic Hockey season, and, with some minor surprises, the standings are shaping up close to the way the coaches expected in their preseason poll. Coaches thought the western scheduling “pod” would be best, picking all six teams above those in the eastern pod. While the standings are close, it is indeed skewed to the west, with five of the top six teams currently from that pod.

Due to the addition of Robert Morris and Niagara this season, which took the league to a seam-busting 12 members, teams were aligned into regional scheduling pods with American International, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart in the eastern pod and Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, Rochester Institute of Technology and Robert Morris in the western pod.

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

A single set of standings are kept, but in the first round of the playoffs, the top two teams in each pod get byes in the first round of the playoffs. For the quarterfinals, the overall standings are used to seed the teams for a best-of-three series, with the four winners advancing to Rochester as in years past.

So what would the playoff schedule look like if the season ended today? It’s not pretty.

• First-place Robert Morris — West pod No. 1 bye
• Second-place Niagara — West pod No. 2 bye
• Third-place Canisius — Home ice in the first round vs. Air Force
• Fourth-place Holy Cross — East pod No. 1 bye
• Fifth-place RIT — Home ice in the first round vs. Mercyhurst
• Sixth-place Mercyhurst — Road first-round game at RIT
• Seventh-place Air Force — Road first-round game at Canisius
• Eighth-place Bentley — East pod No. 2 bye
• Ninth-place Connecticut — Home ice in the first round vs. Army
• 10th-place American International — Home ice in the first round vs. Sacred Heart
• 11th-place Sacred Heart — Road first-round game at AIC
• 12th-place Army — Road first-round game at Connecticut

If the top seeds all win, the quarterfinal pairings would be:

• No. 10 AIC at No. 1 Robert Morris
• No. 9 Connecticut at No. 2 Niagara
• No. 8 Bentley at No. 3 Canisius
• No. 5 RIT at No. 4 Holy Cross

While this system was put in place to try to even out the results of an unbalanced schedule as well as reduce travel in the first round, single-elimination series, it will come at the expense of putting the sixth- and seventh-place teams on the road and giving the eighth-place team a bye. Right now, two of the top eight teams are guaranteed to be eliminated before the quarterfinals.

“We can’t worry about it,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson told me at the beginning of the season. “Your focus has to be to win your pod, since that’s all you can control.”

What are the alternatives? Teams could simply be seeded from 1-12 based on record, which might result in long trip for a single first-round playoff game, as well as punishing teams from the more competitive pod (although arguably not as bad as the current system).

Another option would be to simply eliminate the first round, and have only the top eight teams make the playoffs. Some coaches I talked to like this idea, while others don’t think it’s fair to eliminate teams playing an unbalanced schedule.

Another method would be to really divide the conference into two divisions and have them play down to an east and west champion and have those teams meet in the finals, similar to what’s done in several Division I-A football conferences. The rub is that it doesn’t solve the problem of potentially having the top teams in one pod.

And finally, the AHA could reduce the number of league games to 22, with each team playing the others twice. This is the current ECAC system, which leaves teams scrambling to schedule 12 nonconference games. Of course, the two leagues could help each other out.

We’ll keep an eye on the standings as the season progresses.

Game(s) of the week

Mercyhurst and RIT, like most of the teams in the league, are struggling with inconsistency. Picked to finish at or near the top of the standings, neither has been able to put together a successful string lasting more than three or four games.

The Lakers started off slow, but then put together a four-game winning streak before being swept at home by AIC and splitting with Sacred Heart.

RIT hasn’t been able to win more than two games in a row, but has managed to take at least two points every weekend, with the exception of a single-game loss at Niagara. The Tigers have four games in hand on first-place Robert Morris, while Mercyhurst has three.

RIT is coming off a Jekyll & Hyde weekend at AIC that saw the Tigers put together a complete 4-0 win on Friday but then get outscored 6-2 the following afternoon.

“[AIC] played pretty smart,” Wilson said. “The timing of their goals was big. They’re a good team. We’re not the only ones who are going to have our difficulties with AIC. … They’ve beaten Air Force and swept Mercyhurst.”

The Lakers had a similar weekend, winning 6-2 at Sacred Heart on Friday but falling behind 3-1 early to the Pioneers and never recovering in a 3-2 loss.

“[These will be] two tough games,” Wilson said. “For us, we’re trying to win our pod and these are best out of three. We’ve got two there and one at home. We’ve got to sneak out two of them if not more if we want to do that.”

The USA Warriors Hockey team poses with Army players after a game in December 2010. (USA Warriors Hockey)
The USA Warriors pose with Army players (photo: USA Warriors Hockey).

Warriors on ice

After its game against Colgate last Saturday, Army participated in a scrimmage with the USA Warriors, a team comprised of wounded war veterans from all branches of the U.S. military. The Warriors have both sled and standing teams, and compete around the country at charity events to raise money and awareness. For more information on the Warriors, go to www.usawarriorshockey.org.