The past two weekends have been a microcosm of the up-and-down 2012-13 season for the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers. The final series of the regular season saw any momentum Wayne Wilson’s team had established come to a screeching halt in a pair of losses to I-90 rival Canisius.
Those losses dropped RIT into eighth place and put the Tigers in a first-round series with American International, which was on an unprecedented roll, losing just once in its final 10 games.
But the Tigers put together two of their best games of the season and swept AIC 2-1 and 7-1.
“I think the quote I used after the Canisius series was ‘unexplainable and inexcusable,'” Wilson said. “We were headed in the right direction [before the Canisius series] and I don’t know where that [weekend] came from.
“Respectfully to Canisius, which played very well, but we were awful on Friday [a 6-5 loss] and emotionless on Saturday [a 4-2 loss].”
The sweep, the first ever for Canisius over the Tigers in a rivalry that spans more than 30 years, clinched a home-ice series for the Golden Griffins and halted the Tigers’ quest to finish the season strong after struggling to find their way for long stretches of the campaign.
“I thought we had been playing well, even in losses we had in the second half of the season,” Wilson said. “It comes down to patience. We feel we can score goals. But in games where you don’t think you get as many as you should, you get impatient and that’s a problem we had early in the season that we’ve hopefully solved. But the Canisius weekend was a total team effort. It’s rare that everyone has a bad game at the same time, but that was Friday. And then to come back so emotionless on Saturday was disappointing.”
Last weekend’s series was a completely different story for the Tigers, led by Matt Garbowsky, who had a goal and four assists to extend a nine-game point streak. The sophomore has 17 points in that span.
Goaltender Jordan Ruby rebounded to outduel AIC’s Ben Meisner in net, making 55 saves on 57 shots.
“We needed a big weekend from [Ruby] and that’s what we got,” Wilson said. “We played very well as a team and got rewarded.”
The reward is a quarterfinal series at Niagara, where the Tigers haven’t been able to defeat the Purple Eagles in 10 tries dating to 1996. Niagara is 6-0-4 against RIT at Dwyer Arena and 9-3-7 against the Tigers all-time, including 7-1-5 in the teams’ Division I eras.
Winning a pair of games there is a daunting task, but the Tigers can take some solace in being the only team to take a conference point this season from Niagara at Dwyer Arena, a 2-2 tie on Dec. 12. Niagara is undefeated in its last 20 contests on home ice.
“I don’t it’s anything particular about [Dwyer Arena],” Wilson said of the Purple Eagles’ streak. “They’re a very good hockey team that’s going to come at you every shift. … They wear you down.”
The lone Tigers win against Niagara was a 2-1 overtime victory in last season’s tournament semifinals at Blue Cross Arena. So getting a pair of victories over the No. 15 Purple Eagles is a tall order.
“You’re going have to go through teams like Niagara to win a championship,” Wilson said. “In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter if you lose in the first round or the championship game. You lost.”
Breaking down the quarterfinals
The four winners from last weekend will travel to the top four seeds, who enjoyed first-round byes. Here’s what’s in store for each of the best-of-three quarterfinal series.
No. 8 Rochester Institute of Technology (15-16-5) at No. 1 Niagara (21-8-5)
How they got here: RIT swept American International in convincing fashion in a first-round series, while Niagara had the weekend off. The Purple Eagles clinched first place on Feb. 16 but were swept by Air Force the final week of the regular season.
Outlook: RIT faces the tough task of defeating Niagara twice at Dwyer Arena, something the Tigers have not been able to do even once in 10 attempts. RIT is 1-0 against Niagara in the postseason, a 2-1 overtime win in the conference semifinals last year.
No. 7 Canisius (15-18-5) at No. 2 Air Force (17-11-7)
How they got here: The Golden Griffins shut down Bentley in the first round, sweeping the Falcons 4-0 and 2-1. Canisius has won four games in a row after dropping five straight before that. Air Force locked up second place two weeks ago and is coming off a convincing sweep of Niagara in the final weekend of the regular season. The Falcons had a first-round bye.
Outlook: Air Force has dominated the Atlantic Hockey postseason, winning the title five of the six seasons since the Falcons joined the league in 2006. Air Force is 21-3 all-time in the AHA playoffs. Air Force won the season series against Canisius 2-0-1 and is 5-0-5 in its last 10 meetings with the Golden Griffins.
No. 6 Mercyhurst (16-15-5) at No. 3 Holy Cross (19-12-3)
How they got here: The Crusaders finished strong, going undefeated in their final five games. They were idle last weekend thanks to a third-place finish that resulted in a bye. The Lakers faded down the stretch, going winless in their final nine games of the regular season. They rebounded with a first-round sweep of Army last weekend.
Outlook:The teams also met last year in the quarterfinals, with the Lakers winning on home ice in three games. This time the Crusaders will host. Mercyhurst has the better offense (3.22 goals per game vs. 3.12 for Holy Cross) and defense (2.55 vs. 2.83) but Holy Cross has the momentum and home ice.
No. 5 Robert Morris (20-12-4) at No. 4 Connecticut (17-13-4)
How they got here: Both teams have enjoyed record-breaking seasons so far. Connecticut’s 17 wins to date are the most since 1999 and the best in the Huskies’ 10 years in Atlantic Hockey. UConn went 6-1-1 down the stretch to earn a first-round bye. Robert Morris has 20 wins, the most in program history. The Colonials also got hot down the stretch and are 5-0-2 in their last seven games, including a first-round sweep of Sacred Heart.
Outlook: The teams split a pair of one-goal games in the regular season, marking UConn’s first-ever win over the Colonials. The all-time series is 5-1 in favor of RMU. Robert Morris has better overall numbers on offense and defense, but the Huskies have the better power play and penalty kill.
Players of the week
From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:
Atlantic Hockey co-players of the week:
Matt Garbowsky, RIT
Adam Brace, Robert Morris
Garbowsky extended his scoring streak to nine games with a goal and four assists to help the Tigers to a first-round sweep of AIC. The sophomore has 17 points over that stretch.
Brace also had a goal and four assists in a Colonials sweep of Sacred Heart. He has 40 points on the season, tied for the most in the AHA.
Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Tony Capobianco, Canisius
The junior stopped 70 of 71 shots in a sweep of Bentley. His 1,055 saves this season is a school record.
Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Dan Schuler, RIT
RIT’s first local product in its Division I era had a goal and two assists in the Tigers’ sweep of AIC. His tally came short-handed and was the eventual game-winner on Saturday. Schuler has 10 points in his last 11 games.
Saluting the seniors
Four more groups of seniors will play the final games of their collegiate careers this weekend. Here’s a look at all 12 senior classes.
Air Force (six seniors): This class has been to the NCAA tournament twice and is in the hunt for a third trip. They have a regular season title as well, finishing first last year. Senior forward Kyle De Laurell has 18 goals, best in the conference. He was named a first-team all-star last season. Stephen Carew (one of 10 national finalists for the Senior CLASS Award) and John Kruse combined for 48 points this season. Kruse was an all-league second teamer last season.
American International (seven seniors): AIC posted its most successful season in its 10-year tenure in Atlantic Hockey. Adam Pleskach finished with 122 career points, including 59 goals. He was a third-team all-star last season after making the all-rookie team in 2010. Goalie Ben Meisner ended his career as the all-time saves leader in Atlantic Hockey with 3,684. That’s also good for 12th all-time in Division I. The seniors posted 33 career wins, the second-most in the school’s Division I era.
Army (six seniors): This class was led by Andy Starczewski, who recorded 26 of his 79 career points this season. Also graduating are defenseman Cheyne Rocha, a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, and goalie Ryan Leets, who also went deep into the Rhodes selection process. Rocha is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award.
Bentley (three seniors): Moving on are forwards Joe Campanelli, Brett Hartung and Dan Koudys, who combined for 398 career games. Campanelli was on the 2009-10 AHA all-rookie team.
Canisius (four seniors): Captain Preston Shupe is a difference maker: The Golden Griffins are 9-1 when he scores a goal and 6-17-5 when he doesn’t. Also finishing up is co-captain Torrey Lindsay, who has appeared in 141 games, highest among the seniors. The Canisius Class of 2013 has 55 wins, third-most in the school’s Division I era.
Connecticut (five seniors): This class made it to Rochester its sophomore season and was a goal away from returning last year. Goaltender Garrett Bartus hasn’t played much down the stretch but has appeared in 111 games despite joining the team midway through his rookie season. His 3,293 career stops are third all-time in Atlantic Hockey. Captain Sean Ambrosie is leading the team in scoring with 31 points, accumulating 104 in his career. Alex Gerke is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award. He’s been named to the league’s all-star (second team in 2012) and all-rookie teams (2010).
Holy Cross (five seniors): The Holy Cross senior class played in an AHA semifinal in 2011 and is on the verge of back-to-back 20-win seasons, which would be a first in school history. Three seniors lead the team in scoring: Kyle Fletcher (26 points), Brandon Nunn (25) and Rob Linsmayer (25). Nunn is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award.
Mercyhurst (four seniors): Goaltender Max Strang is 23 saves shy of 2,000 for his career and ranks fourth all-time at Mercyhurst. Paul Chiasson has 107 career points so far; classmate Grant Blakey has 91. This class played in the AHA semifinals last season.
Niagara (six seniors): This class has played three of its four seasons in Atlantic Hockey, advancing to the semifinal round last season. The team’s winning percentage has improved each of the last four seasons, culminating in 21 wins to date and a national ranking for most of 2012-13. Giancarlo Iuorio has 97 career points, including 29 this season despite missing a third of his senior campaign because of injury.
RIT (three seniors): This class made it to the Frozen Four as rookies and played in the AHA championship game the following two seasons. Captain Chris Saracino is third in the nation in points per game by a defenseman (0.89). Jeff Smith leads the team in goals with 14.
Robert Morris (six seniors): The Colonials posted their first 20-win season and are looking for more. With 65 wins in all, this senior class has been the most successful. Adam Brace has 114 points, including 40 so far this season. Goaltender Eric Levine is 10th in the nation in save percentage (.932). Defenseman Brendan Jamison is a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award.
Sacred Heart (seven seniors): This class made the AHA final as freshmen but were not able to get back. Eric Delong led the Pioneers in scoring this season with 32 points. He ended his career with 118 points and was named to the 2010 all-rookie team. Steven Legatto racked up an impressive 3,249 career saves, fourth-highest in league history. He was also all-rookie in 2010.
Note that some players listed on rosters as seniors may have remaining eligibility and could return for another season. For example, sources report that Connecticut goaltender Matt Grogan is likely to return next year so I didn’t include him in the discussion.
But for 60 or so players, their time in college hockey will end over the next few weekends. Like every season, graduation will leave some big skates to fill.