After drama-filled weekend, Mercyhurst, Atlantic Hockey look forward

Well, you can say this about the first weekend of the new Atlantic Hockey playoff format: There was plenty of drama. All four lower-seeded teams advanced and will face the four bye teams in best-of-three quarterfinal series this weekend.

“When it’s a one-game series, anything can and does happen,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, whose Lakers upset Robert Morris 5-1 on Saturday.

“Robert Morris is a great team; they showed that all season. We have to play pretty well to win, and we did that. We had a game plan and our players executed that game plan.”

The Lakers now have to switch gears and play a best-of-three series at Connecticut.

“This is our normal routine, playing on Friday and Saturday night,” said Gotkin. “UConn is a tough place to play and it’s going to be a terrific series.”

Breaking them down

Here are your quarterfinal capsules:

No. 12 American International at No. 1 RIT

How they got here: AIC used a strong third period to defeat Army at Tate rink on Saturday, setting up its first-ever playoff meeting with Rochester Institute of Technology.  The Tigers clinched the AHA regular season title with two weeks to go, but then went 0-2-1 after that heading into last week’s bye.

Outlook: The Tigers are 15-3-1 all-time against AIC, but the teams split earlier this season in Springfield. RIT is 6-1 all-time in playoff games at Ritter Arena.

Yellow Jackets player to watch: Sophomore goalie Ben Meisner made 36 saves last weekend against Army; he made the same number in a 6-2 win over RIT in December.

Tigers player to watch: Tyler Brenner’s 24 goals is sixth in Division I and tops among AHA players still in the hunt.

No. 11 Sacred Heart at No. 2 Air Force

How they got here: The Pioneers, who have had trouble putting the puck in the net this season, exploded for five third-period goals against Bentley on Saturday. Air Force jumped from fourth to second place and a bye in the closing weeks of the regular season, going 5-1 down the stretch.

Outlook: Sacred Heart goes from playing one set of Falcons to another in a rematch of one of last year’s playoff semifinals. The Pioneers are the only AHA team that Air Force did not defeat in the regular season. Sacred Heart took three points from Air Force on home ice in January.

Pioneers player to watch: Junior Matt Gingera leads the team with 19 goals, including a hat trick last Saturday.

Falcons player to watch: Senior Jacques Lamoureux, a former AHA player of the year and Hobey Baker Award finalist, leads the team in scoring with 37 points so far.

No. 8 Canisius at No. 3 Holy Cross

How they got here: Canisius won a big rivalry game at Niagara on Saturday to earn a spot in the quarterfinals. Holy Cross went 8-0-3 down the stretch and moved from sixth place into third.

Outlook: Canisus’ Dan Morrison is getting hot at the right time, making 48 saves on Saturday. He now holds the single season record for saves at Canisius, stopping 894 shots so far. Holy Cross is 4-0-2 in its last six meetings with Canisius.

Golden Griffins player to watch: Senior Cory Conacher has broken all the major career scoring records at Canisius. He has 22 goals and 38 points so far this season.

Crusaders player to watch:Everett Sheen’s 14 goals leads the team. Seven have come on the power play.

No. 7 Mercyhurst at No. 6 Connecticut

How they got here: The Lakers struggled in February but have pulled things together at the right time. UConn finished sixth overall but second in the East scheduling pod, giving the Huskies a bye in the first round. Thanks to Canisius beating Niagara and Mercyhurst topping Robert Morris, UConn, as the fourth highest surviving seed, gets to host a quarterfinal series.

Outlook: Like Morrison at Canisius, UConn’s Garrett Bartus has set his school’s single-season saves record with 996 so far. He’ll need to be sharp against the Lakers, who excel in the postseason. Mercyhurst is 22-9 all-time in the playoffs as members of the MAAC/AHA. The Lakers are 29-10-2 all-time against the Huskies, but split with them this season.

Lakers player to watch: Senior goaltender Ryan Zapolski has played in 29 games so far this season, posting a .923 save percentage.

Huskies player to watch: Senior Andrew Olson has 14 goals so far, tops on the team.

Ginand gone

Mercyhurst’s Phil Ginand has left school and signed an amateur tryout contract with Bridgeport of the AHL.

Ginand was a medical redshirt last season, so he had two years of NCAA eligibility left. His last game was on Feb. 12, just before the end of the winter trimester at Mercyhurst.

“We wish him all the best,” said Gotkin. “Like many players in this league, he has pro hockey aspirations and had an opportunity to sign a pro contract. He has a year of college to go [academically] and he’s going to finish that, but in the meantime we wish him success.”

All’s fair?

Now that the AHA playoffs are into the quarterfinals, sanity has returned as teams were reseeded based on overall standings and not by scheduling pod, as was the case in the first round. Home ice counted for very little, but would it have if these series were best-of-three? It’s bizarre to go from single elimination to best-of-three and then back to single as the playoffs progress.

As one coach told me, “You need to protect your best teams in the playoffs and reward them for [doing well in] the regular season.”

The team that wound up getting hurt the most by this format was Niagara. Finishing fourth overall, the Purple Eagles should have had a bye. Mercyhurst and Canisius should have had home playoff games, although both won anyway.

But in the end, you have to win, which is what it’s all about for the eight remaining teams.