Sacred Heart enters Atlantic Hockey playoffs with momentum slowly building

After a tumultuous season, Sacred Heart is beginning to show signs of life at precisely the right time. The Pioneers were able to take just one point in their first 17 contests but claimed 10 in their last 10 conference games, including a sweep of Army last weekend that moved them out of the Atlantic Hockey basement.

“The low point was the [10-0] game with RIT [on Jan. 14],” said Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo. “We talked a lot as a team after that game and tinkered with the forecheck to try to create more of a defensive presence.”

Sacred Heart lost the next game to Rochester Institute of Technology as well, but by a 3-0 score. After a pair of close losses to Canisius, the Pioneers are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games.

Marottolo said it has been a team effort to rebuild confidence, but he pointed to two players in particular who have stepped up their games.

“[Freshman] Drew George has been extremely hot going down the stretch,” said Marottolo. “Starting in mid-to-late January he has 15 points in his last 10 games. He’s one of the reasons we’ve been a little harder to play against.”

Another reason is rookie goaltender Andrew Bodnarchuk, who was in net for last weekend’s sweep of Army.

“He’s played the last three games and done well,” said Marottolo. “[Steven] Legatto struggled against Holy Cross (6-1 loss on Feb. 17) and Andrew came in and played well in a tough (3-2) loss the next night and looked good against Army.

“Timing is everything, and he was in the right spot at the right time to answer the bell.”

Providing senior leadership is Matt Gingera, who leads the team in goals (14) and points (27). He has 103 career points.

“He and [RIT’s Cameron] Burt are the only guys in the league with 100 [career] points,” said Marottolo. “He’s been very important to our team, especially this year.”

The Pioneers, seeded 11th, travel to sixth seed Bentley for a first-round series this weekend. The last time the teams faced each other was a 3-3 tie on Feb. 4.

“They’re a dangerous, skilled team with an explosive offense,” said Marottolo. “We’re going to have our hands full.”

He’s counting on the momentum that has been slowly building for the Pioneers over the last month. The postseason provides a blank slate in terms of won-loss records.

“We’ve talked about positive momentum and have been able to build momentum over the last 10 games,” said Marottolo. “There were some hard lessons learned, but we’ve seen little strides each game. Confidence is important in any sport and we have a little confidence right now. Our guys feel good.”

Playoff preview

Here’s a breakdown of the AHA first round. Each series is a best-of-three.

No. 12 Army at No. 5 Holy Cross

How they got here: Army was swept in its final three series of the year to fall into last place on the last day of the regular season. The Crusaders are 7-0-1 in their last eight games and tied for the third-highest point total in the league, but got the fifth seed based on tiebreakers.

Outlook: You have two teams moving in opposite directions. The Crusaders have the best offense in the league (3.44 goals per game) while the Black Knights have the worst (1.93).

Black Knights player to watch: Junior forward Andy Starczewski leads the team with 12 goals.

Crusaders player to watch: Rookie goaltender Matt Ginn has been in net for the Crusaders’ hot streak, and has a 2.58 goals against average.

No. 11 Sacred Heart at No. 6 Bentley

How they got here: The Pioneers had a rough start to the season, but are averaging a point a game over their last 10 contests. Bentley was still in the running for the regular season title going into the final weekend, but the Falcons dropped from third to sixth after a loss and tie against Holy Cross.

Outlook: The Falcons were 2-0-1 against the Pioneers in the regular season, and Sacred Heart’s defense, which is allowing over four-and-a-half goals a game, will have to come up big against a high-powered Bentley offense. Last year SHU pulled off an upset at Bentley, but that will be harder in a three-game series.

Pioneers player to watch: Senior forward Matt Gingera leads the team in goals (14) and points (27).

Falcons player to watch: Brett Gensler leads the league with 16 goals and 37 points in conference play.

No. 10 American International at No. 7 Robert Morris

How they got here: AIC finished out of the basement for the first time in league history, but still managed only seven wins this season, one fewer than last year. The Colonials flirted with a top-four finish most of the season but a stretch in late January to early February saw them go 1-4. They righted the ship, going 2-1-2 in their last five games against tough competition.

Outlook: The Colonials have the top penalty kill in the nation and a large senior class. AIC also has plenty of experience up front and in net.

Yellow Jackets player to watch: Goalie Ben Meisner has been known to steal a game here and there, and will need to come up big.

Colonials player to watch: Forward Cody Wydo is a candidate for rookie of the year with 12 goals on the season, including four game-winners.

No. 8 Canisius at No. 9 Connecticut

How they got here: Both teams have had their ups and downs this season and have struggled recently. Canisius is just 1-5 in its last six games, UConn 1-5-2 in its last eight.

Outlook: Whatever team can right its ship first will win this series, which should be the most competitive of the four. The Huskies have the best power play in the league, and Canisius is the most penalized team, so the Golden Griffins will have to stay out of the box. Each team has a goalie (in Canisius’ case, two) that can make 40-50 saves to keep his team in the game.

Golden Griffins player to watch: Sophomore Taylor Law has come into his own this season, and has been one of the Griffs’ better players down the stretch.

Huskies player to watch: Goaltender Garrett Bartus already holds many of the career goaltending records at Connecticut and he’s only a junior.

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Adam Schmidt, Holy Cross

Schmidt had a five-point weekend in a critical series with Bentley. He factored in both goals with a goal and an assist in a 2-2 tie on Friday and then recorded a hat trick in a 6-4 win on Saturday. Schmidt leads the team with 15 goals and 32 points.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Chris Noonan, Niagara

Noonan was instrumental in helping the Purple Eagles take three of four points from RIT last weekend. He allowed only three goals on 86 shots. He leads all Division I goaltenders with a .941 save percentage and is fourth with a 1.70 goals against average.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Chris Bodo, Mercyhurst

Bodo had a four-point weekend to help the Lakers to a split with Canisius and the fourth seed in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs. He’s third on the team with 24 points on the season.

Crystal ball

Back in September, the coaches made their predictions on the AHA final standings and I did mine. How’d we do?

ActualCoachesCoaches +/-USCHOUSCHO +/-
1. Air ForceRIT-2Air Force+0
2. NiagaraAir Force+1RIT-1
3. RITHoly Cross-2Holy Cross-2
4. MercyhurstNiagara+2Niagara+2
5. Holy CrossConnecticut-3Connecticut-3
6. BentleyRobert Morris-1Robert Morris-1
7. Robert MorrisMercyhurst+3Canisius-2
8. ConnecticutArmy-4Mercyhurst+4
9. CanisiusCanisius+0Army-3
10. AICBentley+4Sacred Heart-1
11. Sacred HeartSacred Heart+0Bentley+5
12. ArmyAIC+2AIC+2

The coaches did slightly better than me, off by an average of 2.00 spots per team while I was off by 2.16 spots.

Tweet of the week

[blackbirdpie url=”!/Aharts22/status/174348771717693440″]

RIT’s Adam Hartley tweeted this during the never-ending Daytona 500. Juan Pablo Montoya showed us the consequences of the always-frowned-on right turn, as well as the dangers of putting a huge tank of jet fuel on the track during a race. Geniuses, those NASCAR folks.

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


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