With four games left, Atlantic Hockey teams hunt for one of four first-round byes

It’s time to think about final fours in Atlantic Hockey. There are four games left in the regular season, and four first-round byes on the line.

Hanging onto first place for the second straight week is Air Force, which is riding an eight-game unbeaten streak. The Falcons are getting it all right now: excellent goaltending from sophomore Jason Torf, timely scoring and a defense that excels on both sides of the puck.

“We’re playing with a lot of energy right now,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “When we have a lot of team energy we do well.”

The Falcons generate a lot of their energy from the blue line. Seniors Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis have 44 points between them and log loads of ice time. Sophomore Adam McKenzie is the heir apparent and gives the Falcons depth.

“I think Tim Kirby is the best player in the league and Mathis is right up there, too,” said Serratore. “I think if we win [the regular season title] Kirby has to be MVP. I think [Rochester Institute of Technology goaltender Shane] Madolora is there, too. If RIT wins, then he’s the MVP or maybe someone else if another team wins it. But in my mind Kirby is the best player in the league. He does it all for us.”

Serratore had been splitting goaltending duties between Torf, who returned from injury in January, and senior Stephen Caple. But two weeks ago, Torf played both games of a sweep against RIT and was also in net for both games of last weekend’s series with Niagara. Serratore said that he’s settled on Torf for the stretch run.

“Steve did a great job for us,” he said. “But it gets to the point where you have to go with your gut and do what puts you in the best position to win. That weekend with RIT was huge for a number of reasons. We had to take four points. We did and we’re still in a fight.”

Air Force hosts Mercyhurst this weekend and the Falcons will try to keep rolling and stay atop the heap for another week.

“Things are so tight and finishing in the top four is so important,” said Serratore. “The future is now. We’re already in the playoffs.”

Up for grabs

With an unprecedented seven teams still having a mathematical chance to win the regular season title, here’s what we know after Tuesday’s 4-1 win by Niagara over Canisius:

• There are still eight teams alive for a first-round bye. Canisius was eliminated from that possibility on Tuesday.

• Air Force can clinch a first-round bye with five points in its final four games. Rochester Institute of Technology needs six; Mercyhurst seven.

• If the season ended today, Air Force, RIT, Mercyhurst and Niagara would get the byes, but the Purple Eagles have played one more game (and after Thursday it will be two more games) than Bentley, which is two points back.

The league uses the following tiebreakers, and based on the logjam at the top of the standings, these will probably be looked at frequently over the next two weeks:

1. Points head-to-head
2. Goal differential head-to-head
3. Conference wins
4. Goal differential — conference games
5. Goals allowed — conference games
6. Goals scored — conference games

After being critical of the playoff system last season, I have nothing but praise for the current format, which features four first-round byes and makes the first round and semifinals best-of-three series.

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Drew George, Sacred Heart

The freshman scored his team’s first hat trick of the season on Friday in a 5-5 tie with Connecticut, including the tying goal with 57 seconds to play. On Saturday, he was also the difference, scoring in overtime for a 2-1 win. George is tied for the team lead with 11 goals.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Jason Torf, Air Force

Torf looks like he has settled in after returning from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for the first half of the season. The sophomore had another good weekend, this time posting a 17-save shutout and then stopping 26 of 29 the next night to help the Falcons take three points from Niagara and maintain their hold on first place.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Matt Garbowsky, RIT

Garbowsky had his best weekend of his young career, scoring two goals and adding a pair of assists to help the Tigers to a sweep of Canisius. He has 16 points on the season, tied for fourth on the team.

Fantastic frosh

They’re still freshman, but most coaches will tell you at this point of the season, their first-year players aren’t really rookies anymore. The league lost a lot of talent at the end of last season, but this year’s freshman class has helped to defray that, and there are plenty of candidates to choose from for rookie of the year and the all-rookie team. Here are a few to consider:

Matt Ginn, Holy Cross: In a conference dominated by upperclassmen goaltenders, Ginn has made his mark with a 2.13 goals against average, good for fifth in the league. Last weekend, he stopped 51 of 54 shots to lead the Crusaders to a sweep of Army.

Daniel Bahntge, Mercyhurst: Bahntge leads all rookies in scoring with 22 points in league play and is tied for fourth overall in the conference. He had three assists last weekend and his overall point total of 28 leads the Lakers.

Nardo Nagtzaam, Mercyhurst: Another member of a very talented Mercyhurst rookie class (which also includes Chris Bodo, Ryan Misiak and Tyler Shiplo), Nagtzaam is right behind Bahntage in scoring with 26 points overall, including 10 goals.

Tyson Wilson, Robert Morris: One of the better rookie defensemen in the league, Wilson has 11 points so far.

Cole Gunner, Air Force: Gunner has cooled off after a hot start, but has 17 points in league play so far, tied for fifth in the conference for rookies.

Chris Lochner, Niagara: The rookie has nine goals so far this season, including seven on the power play, tied for first in the league.

Cody Wydo, Robert Morris: Wydo leads the Colonials with 12 goals, including four game-winners.

Bryan Sheehan, Sacred Heart: Sheehan has been a bright spot for the Pioneers. His 10 goals is second on the team and second among AHA rookies.

Brett Switzer and Alex Grieve, Bentley: Switzer’s 21 points are second-best on the team, and Grieve is just a point behind and has 10 goals, many of them big ones for the Falcons.

Brad McGowan and Matt Garbowsky, RIT: Linemates for most of the season, the pair have 14 points each.

I’ll be picking the USCHO Atlantic Hockey all-rookie team in my March 15 column. The league will announce its choices the same evening.

One and only

The semifinalists for the 2012 Walter Brown Award have been announced, and Atlantic Hockey is represented by just one player: Bentley’s Brett Gensler. The award, given by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston to its selection of the top American-born college hockey player in New England, has 14 candidates from Hockey East, five from the ECAC and only Gensler from the AHA.

Excluded but noteworthy are Holy Cross’ Adam Schmidt and Brandon Nunn, Connecticut’s Cole Schneider, and Sacred Heart’s Brian Sheehan.

Tweet of the week

After careful consideration, I’ve deemed no tweet worthy of TOTW. Just as players need to step up their game in the closing weeks of the season, so do you Tweeters out there. Better luck next week.

Want to be eligible for TOTW? Follow me at @chrislerch.