Three Things: Atlantic Hockey – First Round Playoffs

All home seeds moved on (more on that in a bit), but it wasn’t as easy as just saying it. A look at three things (okay, four) that made this weekend as insane as I’ll try to make it out to be:

Holy Cross Gets Divine Intervention

If I had to guess, some late night Friday (and maybe even early morning Saturday) prayers were answered by a higher power for the Holy Cross Crusaders.  How else can you explain some of the whacky weirdness taking place on Saturday and Sunday in Games Two and Three of their series with Rochester Institute of Technology?

Let’s reset the scene.  In Game One, the Crusaders battled back from down 1-0 and 2-1 to force overtime behind a third period goal by Shayne Stockton.  In OT, though, the RIT Tigers scored at 13:23 off the stick of Brad McGowan.  RIT, a team that didn’t win any of their five overtime games during the regular season but also a team that didn’t lose any (with an 0-0-5 record!), seemed to wrestle control of the series after winning their last three games to battle into the ninth seed.

Then came the weirdness.  Several members of the RIT squad woke up sick on Saturday, forcing the Tigers to dress essentially four healthy defensemen and use a limited roster.  The handicapped Tigers got tattooed, losing 5-1 in a game that was all Holy Cross from start to finish.  It also meant RIT would face a decisive third game for the second time in their last three best-of-three series.

On Sunday, the Tigers took a 2-0 lead early in the second before surrendering two mid-period goals in that same frame.  Tied at 2-2, the game went to another overtime.  After settling into the Holy Cross zone, RIT attempted to work the puck around the backside of the net.  Michael Holland dumped it in while getting shoved by Tim Driscoll, and Mike Colavecchia keeps it along the boards.  You can clearly see Jake Bolton pin Ben Lynch in Gretzky’s Office, forcing the Tigers to follow it along the wall.  That’s when it hits the skate of referee Ryan Sweeney.  We know it’s Sweeney because the man in zebra stripes is wearing the orange arm bands, and Mike Taddeo’s nameplate is clearly visible at the start of the exchange.

Instead of hitting Alexander Kuqali, the puck deflects off Sweeney, allowing a breakout for Adam Schmidt up the right side.  Kuqali gets semi-turned around, and Schmidt sends it right into the middle for Mike Barrett.  Holland is back, gets down to a knee, but Barrett is in a good spot, on the forehand, and beats goalie Mike Rotolo to end the series.  There’s great video posted online:


It was unfortunate that a series would be decided off a fluky play involving a ref’s skate.  It’s also an unsightly black eye on officiating that had been, at least in my eyes, improving over the course of the year.  That RIT would lose the series after dealing with their team getting a plague in Game Two and off a fluky play in Game Three takes away from the potentially great series.  But, as the adage goes, there were certainly opportunities for them to win the game before that ever happened, and it’s not about one play but a succession of plays to determine if a team should’ve picked up a win.

Push It To The Limit

Give credit where credit is due.  Both Chris and I mentioned Army’s potential to take a game from the Robert Morris Colonials in the first round.  But neither Chris nor I decided to pick them to win a game.  Shows you what we know.

The Black Knights might have seen their season end on Sunday, but they taught the Colonials a good lesson in courage and blue collar hockey along the way.  Despite leading 1-0 after the first period on Friday, the Black Knights fell behind, 8-1, in Game One, the Black Knights before scoring three third period goals to make it an 8-4 final.  They built on that momentum to win in Game Two.  And in Game Three, they took a 1-0 on a short-handed goal in the second period by Luke Jenkins after playing 0-0 hockey in the first.  They did give up two goals over the course of the middle 20 minutes, but they kept the score tight at 2-1 even as RMU outshot them, 19-7, in that second period.  But the Colonials shot down any chance of an Army comeback with a goal in the fifth minute of the third period.

Despite all the feel-good vibes being sent Army’s way, the Black Knights didn’t quite fit in Cinderella’s shoe.  Every year, a top seed in the first round goes down to a lower seed out of all the conferences.  For the West Pointers, it wasn’t meant to be (it ended up being Dartmouth over RPI in the ECAC).  But if RMU is able to score a win out at UConn next week in the quarterfinals, they’ll be able to point to some trial-by-fire lessons taught by a hard-nosed, hard-fought series with Army.

How Sweep It Is.

Niagara and Canisius very quietly polished off AIC and Sacred Heart, ending hopes for the eastern schools to grab upset (and proving me wrong in the process).  In the process, both teams are establishing solid legacies in the process.

The Golden Griffins are now 6-0 over the last two years in best-of-three series and haven’t lost an AHA playoff game since being swept in Connecticut against the Huskies in 2012.  They’re on an eight-game AHA playoff winning streak and advance to the quarterfinals in a near-replica image of last year’s playoff run.  After limping into they playoffs, they made quick work of the 10th seed and now face the second seeded team in the process.  They also improved to 9-2 in the 12-team AHA era in the playoffs.

Niagara, meanwhile, won their second straight AHA best-of-three playoff.  The Purple Eagles, since joining the AHA in 2011, have not lost a best-of-three series.  In 2012, they finished second and swept seventh-seeded Robert Morris in a matchup of former CHA rivals.  Last year, they swept RIT after finishing first.  Ironically, they’ve never won a single game playoff, losing in the divisional first round in 2011 and losing in the AHA Semifinals in both ’12 and ’13.

The team that eliminated them in 2011, the last time they failed to make the quarterfinals?  Canisius College.

Niagara advanced to play Air Force, while Canisius advanced to play Bentley.

And Away…We…Go.

For the second consecutive year, the first round dust settles with all home teams moving on.  That means the top eight teams will play off in the quarterfinal round.

(8) Holy Cross at (1) Mercyhurst
(7) Canisius at (2) Bentley
(6) Niagara at (3) Air Force
(5) Robert Morris at (4) UConn

In the 12-team AHA era, the quarterfinals will see three rematches from last year.  UConn swept Robert Morris in the exact same pairing (fifth seed at fourth seed) to advance to Rochester, while Mercyhurst took three games at Holy Cross last year in the sixth-at-third matchup.  Canisius swept Bentley in the first round’s 7-vs-10 series.  The only teams to not meet last year in some capacity was Niagara and Air Force, who have never played.

Going back further, this is the third consecutive year Mercyhurst plays Holy Cross in the playoffs.  Bentley and Canisius previously met in 2009 in the quarterfinals in a best-of-three series.  There’s also substantial history between other teams, with UConn-Mercyhurst series and Canisius-Mercyhurst rivalry games galore.  But it’s not worth mentioning those unless we actually see them next week.

The next two wins are the hardest for all of these teams involved.