In Atlantic Hockey, fast starts are huge. Getting out to a good start to the season can be the difference later in the year between a first-round series or a first-round bye, a home series versus a road series.
In a season’s infancy, getting wins over conference opponents can rocket a team up the standings and gain it early positioning. While the season still has plenty of life left to breathe, it’s a start, and it’s something that can be built upon for upcoming weeks.
One team seeing that impact is American International. The Yellow Jackets entered last weekend at 0-3-1 in league play, having lost to and tied Holy Cross and been swept by Canisius. Heading west to take on Niagara, it was the start of five in a row on the road. With nonconference games looming in the coming weeks, it was also their last chance to establish some position before stepping away from their league slate.
AIC responded in spades. Beating Niagara 3-1 and 4-2, the Yellow Jackets rocketed from 11th place up to a tie for fourth with Army. It also provided a little bit of room between them and the bottom of the conference as they prepare to play Massachusetts and Michigan.
“It was a good weekend,” said coach Gary Wright. “It’s definitely early in the season, but it’s still nice to win games. We’ve had some good showings even though we haven’t played that many games, but we’ve also certainly made some mistakes along the way. It’s very satisfying, though, to go out and win games and have good weekends because good weekends now can make a big difference.”
Big kudos are well deserved for freshman goalie Alex Murray. He made 40 stops in each game, saving 23 shots in the third period of Friday’s win alone. Alexander MacMillan powered the offense with three goals, and several of the Yellow Jackets players finished well on the plus side of their ice time, including Chris Porter, who was plus-4.
The Yellow Jackets receive a nonconference breather from their Atlantic Hockey slate (more on this later) before taking on Robert Morris on Nov. 22-23.
Holy Cross crusading
The expectations surrounding Holy Cross were decidedly tempered in comparison to previous years. Our preseason finish for 10th place, both Chris Lerch and I figured the Crusaders and their first-year coach, David Berard, would be in rebuilding mode.
While it’s still early in the season, the old guard from the days of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is proving it’s still very much alive.
The Crusaders have done a tremendous job of not losing tight games, remaining undefeated through their first two conference weekends. After beating and tying AIC earlier in October, they repeated the effort against Sacred Heart last weekend by winning 3-0 on the road on Friday before tying 2-2 at home on Saturday.
“We’re off to a good start,” said Berard. “Every game could really go any way, which is a hallmark of our conference. The games have been really tight, and there’s really been no such thing as a comfortable lead. We had a good weekend against AIC, but at the same time, AIC had some really great players that battled hard on both nights. We were fortunate to come out of that weekend with three points.
“The same thing happened against Sacred Heart,” he continued. “We were solid on the road on Friday, but then [the Pioneers] came out with real purpose on Saturday. They’re a very good team, very well coached, and, like I told my guys, they want to win, too. The back-and-forth kind of game ended the way I felt it should have, with a tie. So we’ve had two solid weekends, but we’ve had to work very hard to get them.”
Berard credited the team’s defense for the early season success. In their first four conference games, the Crusaders allowed only six goals and have one shutout.
“We know we’re not going to have the most prolific offense, so we need our defense in order to win tight, low-scoring games,” Berard said. “That’s not just our goalie or our defense but the forwards, too. All six guys have to be able to work together to create offense.
“Our goal is to be in every game, because whether you win 2-1 or 6-3, it’s the same two points. That’s something our guys are getting a good grasp on, but they know it’s a process that requires a lot of work.”
One of the surprises to start the season is Niagara’s rough start. The Purple Eagles are 0-8 through the first month of the season, including an 0-4 start in Atlantic Hockey play.
While the coaching staff won’t use it as an excuse, they’ve also had one of the toughest schedules, drawing their first games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence from ECAC Hockey; Robert Morris; Hockey East’s Notre Dame; and AIC.
It’s been a vicious combination for the school, one where it has had trouble both scoring goals and stopping other teams. Through eight games, Niagara has potted 12 goals for itself while giving up 42.
Last weekend, it became particularly prickly as the Purple Eagles outshot AIC on both Friday and Saturday by a combined 85-45 yet lost by 3-1 and 4-2 margins.
We know Niagara won’t stay dormant for too long. This is a team that’s been to the championship weekend two years in a row and last year was in the league’s final game against Robert Morris.
That said, it doesn’t get any easier for the Purple Eagles, who head east of New York for the first time this year when they play Bentley.
Ginn’s the man
Big congratulations to Matt Ginn of Holy Cross, who became the program’s all-time save record holder last weekend.
Ginn made 53 saves against Sacred Heart, bringing his career total to 2,939. That broke a nearly 30-year record set by Paul Pijanowski, who had 2,915 stops between 1984 and 1987.
In addition, Ginn has appeared in 106 games, best all-time for a goalie in Holy Cross program history.
“Matt is the centerpiece to our team defense,” Berard said. “We know what his effort is going to be each night.”
This coming week will provide some thick story lines as interesting rematches pop up across the AHA landscape.
Bentley will host Niagara a year after the Purple Eagles walked into Ryan Arena and walked out with three points. Holy Cross heads to Rochester Institute of Technology for the teams’ first meeting since last year’s controversial playoff ending.
The most compelling matchup, however, might be the American International-Massachusetts game taking place at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass.
Last season, Hunter Leisner made 57 saves and the Yellow Jackets won 3-2. This year, the team with some of the longest travel plans in league play gets to make the short, 35-minute drive to the state’s flagship to take on Hockey East’s Western Massachusetts representation.
“We’re very appreciative of the opportunity to play a program like UMass,” Wright said. “It’ll be really great for our guys to be able to leave campus and get home in about 35 minutes after the game, sleep in their own beds.
“We’ll be looking to keep improving as a team in this game, and it’s always good for the league to be able to go out and play teams from leagues like Hockey East. And this is something that can be great for Western Massachusetts as well. Hopefully this is something we can one day move to the MassMutual Center in Springfield.”
In the more distant future (OK, two weeks) for the Yellow Jackets is a trip to Michigan, a B1G friend to the AHA scheduling gods. The Wolverines have played RIT, Bentley, Niagara and Mercyhurst dating back to the start of the 2010-11 season.
Robert Morris is off to a well-publicized fast start after winning its first conference championship last season. With a 7-0-1 record, however, the Colonials finally garnered national attention when they cracked into the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll at 18th. It’s the first time the team’s been recognized on that level.
The last couple of years have been a real breakout for the program, one we’ve discussed at length over time. The Colonials won the inaugural Three Rivers Classic by scoring an extraordinary win over top-ranked Miami two years ago, something that had them in position for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament until the season’s final postseason weeks. Last year, they won Atlantic Hockey. This year’s start’s checked another accomplishment off the list.
With a way-too-early look at the PairWise Rankings, Robert Morris is seventh. There will inevitably be some ironing out and shaking down when league play kicks up across the nation. But where Niagara’s fast start two years ago earned it an at-large bid, this type of start has the potential to put RMU in that same category.
Here’s what the league office released for players of the week. You’ll get no argument from me with one other addition to the list.
Player of the week — American International’s Alexander MacMillan: MacMillan accumulated three goals (including the game winner on both nights) in a sweep of Niagara. He has five goals on the season, good enough to force a three-way tie for second-best in the conference.
Goalie of the week — Holy Cross’ Matt Ginn and Bentley’s Gabe Antoni: In addition to setting the records mentioned earlier, Ginn posted a .964 save percentage last weekend. That’s worthy of being recognized by the league. I’ll add Antoni to the list for a complete yeoman’s effort in defeat. Facing 54 shots, he made 51 saves on Thursday night at Penn State. It was the first 50-save performance since Branden Komm stopped 54 in a tie against Army two years ago.
Rookie of the week — American International’s Alex Murray: It’s always special for a freshman goalie to receive his first collegiate win, and Murray was no different last weekend. He made 82 saves with a .965 save percentage. AIC’s penalty kill unit was also a perfect 5-for-5 over the two games.