Prospect of more than one team moving on adds intrigue to Atlantic Hockey Championship

At this point of the Atlantic Hockey season, I’d normally report that four teams are going to the championship in Rochester, N.Y., and that only one would move on. But this year may be different.

2013 Atlantic Hockey Championship

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Niagara is tied for ninth in the PairWise Rankings entering the conference championship weekend. The Purple Eagles would just assume win their way into the NCAA tournament, but it looks like Niagara may have an alternate path if defeated in Rochester this weekend. Estimates show Niagara with upwards of a 95 percent chance of getting an at-large bid should it falter.

This has happened twice before in Atlantic Hockey history. Holy Cross in 2006 and Air Force in 2009 were both in the top 16 in the PWR going into the conference championship. Both won their way into the tournament. But neither was as much of a lock as Niagara looks to be.

The added intrigue makes this year’s final four even more interesting. Neither Air Force nor Rochester Institute of Technology made it to Blue Cross Arena, seeing their streaks end of advancing to the semifinals in every year that they were eligible: six times for the Falcons and five times for the Tigers.

But enough about teams that will not be at BCA. Each of the four teams left standing has its own story line and its own history to be made.

Atlantic Hockey semifinals

No. 7 Canisius vs. No. 1 Niagara

Canisius is the lowest seed ever to make it to Rochester and is tied with Bentley for the lowest seed to make the AHA semifinals in the 10-year history of the league (Bentley did it in 2005 before the league established the championships in Rochester in 2007). The Golden Griffins have the longest winning streak in Division I with six straight victories.

Canisius has never won a conference championship in either Division I or Division III. The Golden Griffins have never made it to an AHA title game but did reach the finals in the MAAC in 1999, losing to Holy Cross.

Niagara is looking for its first AHA championship since joining the league in 2010. The Purple Eagles won titles in College Hockey America in 2000, 2004 and 2008, advancing to the NCAAs each time. In 2000, the CHA had no automatic bid but Niagara earned an at-large berth and made it to the quarterfinals.

Canisius and Niagara have the kind of rivalry you’d expect from schools located just 23 miles apart. The teams have met 27 times since Niagara established varsity hockey in 1997, with the Purple Eagles holding a 17-8-2 advantage. They have met twice before in the postseason: in the semifinals of the ECAC West championship in 1998 and the first round of the Atlantic Hockey playoffs in 2011. Niagara won the first meeting, Canisius the second. Niagara and Canisius have played three times this season with each game a close, low-scoring affair. The Purple Eagles won 2-1 in Buffalo in November, and the teams split in a home-and-home series in early February, with each squad coming away with a 2-0 victory on home ice. Both of those contests were essentially one-goal games with empty-net goals sealing the deal.

The Purple Eagles have four league all-stars and most likely the player of the year in Atlantic Hockey in either goaltender Carsen Chubak (.941 save percentage and a 1.81 goals against average) or forward Giancarlo Iuorio (19 goals and 32 points in 25 games).

But Canisius is playing its best hockey of the season when it counts the most. Tony Capobianco has been outstanding in goal down the stretch, making 90 saves on 96 shots last weekend at Air Force in the quarterfinals and 70 saves on 71 shots the weekend before against Bentley in the first round of the playoffs. Junior forward Kyle Gibbons is riding an eight-game point streak.

Niagara has the top offense in the conference and Canisius owns the third-ranked defense and top penalty kill.

No. 6 Mercyhurst vs. No. 4 Connecticut

There’s no natural rivalry for these squads, who played each other evenly this season, splitting a pair of games in mid-January.

The Huskies had more success in the second half of the season, going 14-5-2 since the holidays. UConn is riding a seven-game unbeaten streak, tied for second-longest in the nation with Notre Dame and behind only Michigan’s eight-game run.

Mercyhurst is 10-9-4 over that same span, including a eight-game winless streak to close out the regular season. But the Lakers have recovered in the postseason, going 4-1 with a sweep of Army and a two-games-to-one series win at Holy Cross last weekend.

Each squad has had its share of goaltending intrigue. At UConn, Matt Grogan won the starting job away from incumbent Garrett Bartus in January and has started the last 10 games, putting up the second-highest save percentage (.939) and second-lowest lowest goals against average (1.88) in the conference.

Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin has been for the most part platooning senior goaltender Max Strang and junior Jordan Tibbett, with Tibbett having the hotter hand in the postseason, going 3-0 to Strang’s 1-1.

The Lakers are 32-13-2 all-time against Connecticut. The teams last met in the postseason in 2011 with a Lakers sweep of a quarterfinal series. There were three additional meetings in the postseason dating back to the MAAC years, each time in the quarterfinals. In all, each school has won two of the four postseason matchups.

Mercyhurst has claimed two MAAC championships and one Atlantic Hockey title, advancing to the NCAAs each time. UConn won a MAAC championship in 2000 but that was before the league got an automatic bid. The Huskies have never played in the NCAA tournament.

What have you done for me lately?

While interesting to note and fun to research, how much does each of the four teams’ pedigrees matter now? Very little. No player on the ice this weekend has ever won an AHA title or played in the NCAA tournament. That’s the first time that’s happened in the time the championships have been in Rochester (2007-present).

Niagara coach Dave Burkholder and Mercyhurst’s Rick Gotkin have guided teams to conference titles in the past. Canisius coach Dave Smith has taken only one team this far before (in 2010) and if the Golden Griffins win one more game, it will be his highest season victory total in eight years behind the bench.

UConn’s Dave Berard is experiencing his first season as a collegiate head coach after 20 years in an assistant’s role. He’s the Huskies’ interim head coach as the school looks to replace the retired Bruce Marshall and set course for Hockey East in 2014-15. If this year is his audition, he’s passing it.

Four teams with four stories collide this weekend. As they say, history will be made.

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Grant Blakey, Mercyhurst

The senior forward had three goals, including both game winners to help the Lakers defeat host Holy Cross two games to one in an Atlantic Hockey playoff quarterfinal series. Blakey has 39 points, a career season high.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Jordan Tibbett, Mercyhurst

Tibbett was 2-0 in the quarterfinal series at Holy Cross, including a 28-save shutout in the deciding third game. In three playoff starts this season, the junior has allowed just three goals total.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Shawn Pauly, Connecticut

The rookie from Bellingham, Wash., led the Huskies to a sweep of Robert Morris, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist. He has 20 points on the season, tops among UConn freshmen and fifth on the team.

Hey now…

As is traditional in my final column of the season, I’ve handed out my own AHA awards. Some of the drama has been removed this time with the league already issuing its all-rookie and
all-league teams. In the past, these awards had been announced at a league banquet the night before the semifinals.

My picks are usually published a few hours before the league announcement, so this is the first time that I know who made the official list(s). It didn’t sway me, so you’ll see several differences.

All-AHA first team
F Kyle De Laurell, sr., Air Force
F Brett Gensler, jr., Bentley
F Giancarlo Iuorio, sr., Niagara
D Chris Saracino, sr., RIT
D Steve Weinstein, so., Bentley
G Carsen Chubak, jr., Niagara

All-AHA second team
F Adam Brace, sr., Robert Morris
F Kyle Gibbons, jr., Canisius
F Matthew Zay, so., Mercyhurst
D Nick Jones, jr., Mercyhurst
D Adam McKenzie, jr., Air Force
G Matt Grogan, sr., Connecticut

All-AHA third team
F Ryan Misiak, so., Mercyhurst
F Adam Pleskach, sr. American International
F Cody Wydo, so., Robert Morris
D Mac Lalor, so., Army
D Dan Weiss, sr., Niagara
G Ben Meisner, sr., American International

Honorable mention: Karl Beckman (Connecticut), Andrew Blazek (Robert Morris), Matt Blomquist (Bentley), Tony Capobianco (Canisius), Jeff Ceccacci (AIC), Ben Danford (Canisius), Eric Delong (Sacred Heart), Matt Garbowsky (RIT), Alex Grieve (Bentley), Brant Harris (Connecticut), Ryan Murphy (Niagara), Kevin Ryan (Niagara), Jordan Sims (Connecticut), Max Strang (Mercyhurst), Jason Torf (Air Force)

All-rookie team
F Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley
F Joe Kozlak, Army
F Chris Porter, American International
D Karl Beckman, Holy Cross
D Matt Blomquist, Bentley
G Vacant

Honorable mention: David Friedmann (Robert Morris), Thane Heller (Army), Dan Kolenda (Niagara), Dan Schuler (RIT)

Player of the year: Carsen Chubak, Niagara

Rookie of the year: Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley

Coach of the year: Dave Berard, Connecticut

Farewell for now

The curfew clock is winding down. My coverage of Atlantic Hockey for the season isn’t finished, but this is my last column of the 2012-13 campaign. I’ll be at Blue Cross Arena this weekend, live blogging the games and helping to bring you stories and video.

Then it’s on to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four, where hopefully I’ll be reporting on an Atlantic Hockey team (or two! It could happen!).

Thanks again to Todd Milewski, editor extraordinaire, and the rest of the USCHO staff. A special shout out to Paula Weston, who is reporting this weekend on the final games of the CCHA, a beat she’s been covering since 1996. This is her last CCHA column, beautiful and bittersweet.

Again and always, thanks to my broadcast partners Scott Biggar and Ed Trefzger, who bailed me out more than a few times when I had to change plans. Our broadcasts have been likened to sitting with us at a game with a cold beverage in hand, and we take that as a compliment. And thanks to Nick Phelan, my color man for several games this season. He’s a rising star.

Kudos to the other Atlantic Hockey broadcasters I’ve come to know over the past few seasons and especially this year: Seth Dussault and Eric Richardson at AIC, Jay Ritchie and Dave Toller at Air Force, Dan Rubin at Bentley, Nate Lull at Canisius and Will Moran at UConn. It’s been fun to trade information and opinions this season. Look for bigger and better things in terms of AHA media next season.

A special thanks to league SID Dave Rourke, who puts up with my often prickly questions every season. And I seriously want you to try that Bobby V. prank we discussed.

And most of all, thanks to Kathleen, my wife of 22 years. There’s a reason why our friends call her “Saint” Kathleen. She’s been willing to share me the entire time we’ve been together with this mistress called college hockey.

And lastly, thank you, dear reader. I’ll leave you with something that you’ll (hopefully) find inspiring. I’m the IT Director for a nationally recognized agency that supports people with developmental disabilities. Army senior forward Andy Starczewski posted this video to social media a few days ago and it struck close to home.

Special Hockey International is an organization dedicated to promoting hockey for people with developmental disabilities. SHI holds an annual tournament in Canada that draws 70 teams from the host nation, the U.S. and Europe.

Here’s a video from that tournament shared by Starczewski. I found the teamwork, tenaciousness and empathy displayed by these kids to be very inspiring, and I hope you do too. It’s the best goal I’ve seen this season.

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I’m happy to leave you with that. Enjoy the postseason and when the leaves turn, we’ll start anew.