American International getting rewarded for its resilience

In the second period of American International’s game at Bentley on Saturday, Yellow Jackets coach Gary Wright caught a puck to the head and had to be attended to by the team’s trainer.

“It was a deflection from about 15 feet away,” Wright said. “It came at me so fast. I guess I’m getting old. Maybe I should wear a helmet on the bench.”

Wright wound up with some stitches as a result, but that wasn’t the strangest thing that happened in the game.

The teams were tied 3-3 through regulation with the ninth and 10th seeds in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs at stake. A tie would give Bentley ninth place. AIC needed a win or it would finish 10th.

Both teams pulled their goalie at different points in the final 30 seconds of overtime, with the Yellow Jackets winning the game on an empty-net goal with a second to play.

“It was a unique situation in a unique game,” Wright said. “It wasn’t about the higher seed. People might pay attention to that, but they do remember where you finished in the standings. We have had some not-so-great years and to climb a little bit was important. We wanted to climb as high as possible. The guys were playing so well, coming back from two goals down. We wanted to go for the win.”

The last time the Yellow Jackets finished in ninth place, Atlantic Hockey had just nine teams. AIC finished in the basement of the standings each of the first eight seasons of AHA play before a 10th-place finish last season. The win on Saturday gave Wright’s team its best finish ever in Atlantic Hockey play. The Yellow Jackets’ 12 wins match its best total in a season of Division I play.

Especially encouraging for AIC is its record in the final 10 games of the regular season: 7-1-2. A three-point weekend at Air Force in early February started the turnaround, but Wright said the seeds were planted a month before.

“We’ve played really well from New Year’s on,” he said. “We had some bad losses prior to that. But then it started to come together and we didn’t have much to show for it until Air Force. That weekend was clearly significant, no question. But we had been building toward that.”

The Yellow Jackets are cashing in on a crew of experienced forwards. Senior Adam Pleskach leads the team in goals (15) and points (32), followed by junior Blake Peake (23 points), junior Jon Puskar (22 points) and senior Richard Leitner (20 points). But the team MVP is goaltender Ben Meisner, who made 96 saves on 101 shots in three wins last week. He’s been averaging over 35 saves per game this season.

Meisner has 3,631 career saves, placing him 12th in NCAA history. He trails former Boston College goaltender John Muse by 66 saves for 11th place.

“He’s really been dialed in,” Wright said. “The play of our defensive corps has been sound, and we’ve been more potent offensively. We’ve been winning low-scoring games. I can’t point to one area [of improvement]. It’s been a matter of confidence.”

Wright said he’s happy for his players who have been able to experience the fun of getting on a roll in the past month.

“The kids have been outstanding, win or lose,” Wright said. “But it’s obviously more fun when you’re winning. They’ve shown resilience considering the adversity we’ve had in terms of wins and losses, so it’s nice to see them get rewarded.”

The Yellow Jackets travel to Rochester Institute of Technology for a first-round playoff series. The Tigers are reeling after their lowest finish since joining the league in 2006. Wright’s team has all the momentum, but he’s not looking past Game 1 on Friday.

“[RIT is] a program of high notoriety,” he said. “They’ve had great success and consistency. It’s a great college hockey experience going there. Just by reputation and experience you consider them a very challenging opponent. What we’ve done recently has been a great run. We’ve put ourselves in a position to approach the playoffs with a different dynamic that maybe we’ve had before.”

Breaking down the first round

Four teams will end their seasons this weekend; four will move on to the quarterfinals. Here’s what’s in store for each of the best-of-three, opening-round series.

No. 12 Sacred Heart at No. 5 Robert Morris

How they got here: A little over three weeks ago, the Pioneers were 0-26-2 and staring into the abyss of a winless season. But they’ve gone 2-2-2 since then. The Colonials have played .500 hockey after their big win in the Three Rivers Classic Tournament in December, but finished undefeated in their final five games.

Outlook: Robert Morris is in the middle of the pack in almost every statistical category, but it’s been enough to play consistent hockey all season. The Colonials lost back-to-back games only once, and it wasn’t over the same weekend. Sacred Heart is playing its best hockey of the season right now. If the Pioneers can somehow get to a third game, anything can happen.

No. 11 Army at No. 6 Mercyhurst

How they got here: Both teams are slumping heading into the postseason. Army hasn’t won a game since Jan. 4; Mercyhurst since Feb. 5.

Outlook: Mercyhurst has the third-best offense in the league while Army has the second-worst defense. Army needs the fresh start that the playoffs provide and has to find an offense that has disappeared in the second half of the season. The Black Knights rarely get outworked but they have to be better defensively against a Lakers squad that likes to run and gun.

No. 10 Bentley at No. 7 Canisius

How they got here: Bentley has been in freefall since the end of January, dropping from third in the standings to 10th, its final and lowest position of the season. Canisius pulled out of a February swoon with a first-ever sweep of RIT to end the season, grabbing seventh place and home ice in the first round.

Outlook: Bentley’s power play, once one of the best in the country, has been struggling and will be put to the test against Canisius’ top-ranked penalty kill (an AHA-best 91.5 percent). The Golden Griffins have had trouble scoring goals all season but put up 10 in their series with RIT. Home ice may be the difference as both teams have played around .500 at home but have struggled on the road.

No. 9 American International at No. 8 Rochester Institute of Technology

How they got here: American International had its best month as a Division I program in February, losing only once in its final 10 games. RIT finished below fourth place for the first time in its seven-year membership in the AHA.

Outlook: Home ice is no advantage for RIT this season. The Tigers are an unheard-of 5-8-2 at Ritter Arena, including 5-6-1 in league play. As the playoffs often do, this may come down to goaltending and special teams. RIT leads the league in power play efficiency, but AIC is right behind and tops the AHA in combined special teams. AIC took Robert Morris to overtime in Game 3 of its first-round series last season and is in position to do that one better unless the Tigers can build off of their extensive postseason experience. The RIT seniors went to the Frozen Four in 2010 and have never experienced a playoff run that didn’t at least end in the AHA championship game.

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey co-players of the week:
Adam McKenzie, Air Force
Kyle Gibbons, Canisius

McKenzie, a junior defenseman from Petaluma, Calif., had a five-point weekend to help the Falcons to a sweep of Niagara. He had an assist on Friday and a career-best goal and three assists on Saturday.

Gibbons, also a junior, also racked up five points in a sweep of RIT. He had two assists on Friday and a goal and a pair of helpers on Saturday.

Atlantic Hockey co-goalies of the week:
Jason Torf, Air Force
Matt Ginn, Holy Cross

Torf stopped 36 of 39 shots last weekend in a sweep of Niagara. He’s allowed fewer than three goals in 11 of his last 12 starts.

Ginn went 3-0-0 in a win over Sacred Heart and a sweep of Army, including his first shutout of the season last Friday. He made 69 saves on 74 shots in all.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Karl Beckman, Holy Cross

Beckman is the second straight Holy Cross player to win the award. He had a pair of goals and an assist in three games, all wins for the Crusaders.

Men of the month

Atlantic Hockey player of the month for February:
Brant Harris, Connecticut

Harris helped the Huskies to a 6-2 record in February with 14 points (six goals and eight assists). He leads the team in goals with 14.

Other players nominated: Kyle De Laurell, Air Force; Shayne Stockton, Holy Cross; Ryan Misiak, Mercyhurst; Ryan Murphy, Niagara; Matt Garbowsky, RIT; Cody Wydo, Robert Morris; Eric Delong, Sacred Heart; Ben Ketchum, Sacred Heart.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the month for February:
Ben Meisner, American International

Meisner led AIC to its most successful month in its Division I era, posting a 5-1-2 record with a 1.59 goals against average and a .955 save percentage.

Other goalies nominated: Jason Torf, Air Force; Matt Grogan, Connecticut; Carsen Chubak, Niagara; Jordan Ruby, RIT.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the month for February:
Karl Beckman, Holy Cross

Beckman had a team-leading eight assists in February. On the season, he has two goals and 12 assists.

Other rookies nominated: Dan Schuler, RIT; Zak Lynch, Robert Morris.

The sweep was sweet

Because of their long history dating back several decades to their respective club and Division III eras, Canisius and RIT disagree on how many times the teams have officially met. Canisius says 61; RIT says 74. But everyone can agree that last weekend’s sweep of the Tigers was the first time the Golden Griffins have been able to accomplish that.

It’s the first time since the 1993-94 season that Canisius defeated RIT twice in a row, and for good measure last weekend’s sweep made it three straight for the Golden Griffins, who also defeated the Tigers on Nov. 10.

It was just the third time since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2006 that the Tigers have been swept in a weekend series. The other two were at the hands of Air Force.

Getting hot at the right time

Last week we looked at players who were riding hot streaks going into the final games of the season. As the playoffs open, who’s got momentum? And who doesn’t?

On a roll:

• American International: 7-1-3 in its last 10 games; 3-1-1 in its last five.

• Air Force: 5-2-3 in its last 10 games; 4-1 in its last five.

• Connecticut: 7-2-1 in its last 10 games; 4-0-1 in its last five.

• Holy Cross: 6-3-1 in its last 10 games; 4-0-1 in its last five.

• Robert Morris: 5-3-2 in its last 10 games; 3-0-2 in its last five.

Treading water:

• Niagara: 6-4 in its last 10 games; 2-3 in its last five.

• RIT: 5-5 in its last 10 games; 2-3 in its last five.

• Canisius: 3-7 in its last 10 games; 2-3 in its last five.

Limping toward the finish:

• Mercyhurst: 2-5-3 in its last 10 games; 0-3-2 in its last five.

• Sacred Heart: 2-6-2 in its last 10 games; 1-2-2 in its last five.

• Bentley: 1-7-2 in its last 10 games; 0-3-2 in its last five.

• Army: 0-8-2 in its last 10 games; 0-5 in its last five.

Cloudy crystal ball

With the regular season in the books, let’s take a look back to see how the coaches (via the preseason poll) and myself ended up in our predictions:

TeamActual finishCoaches pollUSCHO season preview
Air Force212
Holy Cross368
Robert Morris586
Sacred Heart121212

I did a slightly better job than the coaches, off by an average of 2.17 spots. The league poll missed by 2.42 places per team. The big surprises were Connecticut, Holy Cross and Robert Morris, each team finishing three places ahead of the official preseason predictions. Bentley had the largest disparity, ending in 10th place after being picked to tie for fourth.