Unprecedented stability in Atlantic Hockey (for now) while teams chase Air Force

The 2012-13 season will be an unprecedented one for Atlantic Hockey, because for the first time in the league’s 10-year history, the same teams will use the same scheduling scheme and postseason plan two years in a row.

Things will be different again in two years with the planned departure of Connecticut for Hockey East, but for at least the time being, the league will enjoy some measure of stability.

Another constant has been Air Force, winner of the AHA title five of the past six seasons, including last year when it lost 2-0 in the NCAA tournament to eventual national champion Boston College in a game that wasn’t settled until the final minutes.

“It shows how competitive this league has become,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We’ve been good but we’ve been lucky, too. It used to be teams who won the regular season would have to have 20 [conference] wins. That was the magic number. Last season we won the league with 15 wins. Three teams had 15 wins.”

“I think the reason you’re seeing such tight standings is that while everyone is improving, the bottom teams have definitely gotten a lot better,” Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl said. “There are no games that are going to be easy wins.”

Serratore was in agreement: “The bottom teams are closing the gap. Everybody has good goaltending, and everybody can beat you.”

Last year, goaltending dominated the league, with seven goalies putting up overall save percentages above .922 and 10 teams having at least one netminder with a save percentage above .900. Eight squads allowed fewer than three goals per game, not just in the AHA, but overall.

“I don’t think that’s going to change,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “It’s not just great goaltending but great defense. It’s hard to get to the net in this league. Teams are running very good systems and there are a lot of skilled defensemen out there, not just goalies.”

Two coaches in the league are celebrating 25 years behind the bench, all at their current school: Rick Gotkin at Mercyhurst and Bruce Marshall at Connecticut. Gary Wright at American International has been there for 28 seasons. Of the five active coaches in Division I with 25 years or more experience, three are in the AHA. The other two are Jack Parker (40 years at Boston University) and Red Berenson (29 years at Michigan).

As usual, there are many questions to be answered and subplots to be analyzed as we embark on Atlantic Hockey’s 10th season:

Can Air Force do it again? Every year it seems the league gets more competitive, yet for five of the past six seasons the Falcons have been the last team standing, a remarkable feat. Serratore thinks that he has a better team from top to bottom than he did last season.

Who has the best chance to unseat the Falcons? Niagara and Bentley are both looking at possibly their best seasons ever in the AHA.

Are Robert Morris and Rochester Institute of Technology on the way up or down? Both have been near the top of the standings since joining the league, but both are picked relatively low (for them) in the preseason poll.

Can Holy Cross match its 20 wins from last season? The Crusaders lost a large class, so it will be interesting to see if they take a step forward or backward this season.

American International, Army and Sacred Heart had rough years but all were playing their best hockey by the end of the season. Can they build on that? Each has reasons to be optimistic. The first few weeks of the season will be telling.

How will UConn fare in its final two seasons in the league? More resources for the program as it ramps up for Hockey East could make the Huskies a contender to go out with a bang.

Can Mercyhurst’s sophomore class stay on track? It’s not called a sophomore slump for nothing. It’s a real danger that we’ve seen before.

Is Canisius a legitimate dark horse? The Golden Griffins were a fashionable team to pick two seasons ago with their talented senior class. But Canisius quietly got better in rebuilding mode last season and it will be interesting to see where the Griffs finish this year.

Here are my picks for the final standings in Atlantic Hockey for the 2012-13 season. Click on a team’s name for a more detailed preview:

1. Niagara

The Purple Eagles were the best team in the league by the end of last season.

2. Air Force

Can the Falcons do it again in a league that’s getting tighter every season?

3. Bentley

On paper, the Falcons are scary good. I think they will live up to expectations.

4. Mercyhurst

It would not surprise me to see the Lakers win the league. There’s little room between the top five or six teams in the league.

5. Rochester Institute of Technology

If RIT’s offense can return to form, the Tigers will be fine.

6. Robert Morris

The Colonials got bigger and quite possibly better.

7. Connecticut

The impact of pseudo-Hockey East recruiting will be a factor.

8. Holy Cross

Coming off a 20-win season, the Crusaders are talented but will be hard-pressed to do it again.

9. Canisius

The Golden Griffs return 22 players but there are a lot of good teams ahead of them.

10. Army

Coming off its worst season in over 60 years, Army should be improved despite the loss of a large senior class.

11. American International

The Yellow Jackets are coming off their highest finish ever (10th). I think they will stay close to that this season.

12. Sacred Heart

I think the Pioneers will be better, but probably not enough to escape the basement.