On Dec. 31, the Air Force Falcons were in a tough spot. Atlantic Hockey’s best perennial power for the last decade, the Colorado-based service academy finished fourth in the Catamount Cup after getting pasted 5-1 by Massachusetts.
Losers of four straight, five of their last six, and seven of their last nine, the mighty Falcons, five-time conference champions, were 5-12-2 overall with a 4-5-1 record in the league.
Then the second half of the season started and the team turned on its afterburners.
With a 7-1-1 record since Jan. 1, the Falcons are Atlantic Hockey’s hottest team so far in 2015. Winners of their last six, they’ve rocketed up the league standings into fourth place. A team once threatened to be on the road in the first round of the playoffs, they’ve turned the tables and now stand poised for another memorable second-half run.
Still, coach Frank Serratore is hesitant when looking ahead at the upcoming schedule.
“We have a nice streak going here, but we have to ask if we’ve really gotten better or if it’s an illusion,” he said. “Early on in the year, we played some of the top teams in the league. Now we’ve gone 7-1 and won six games against teams below us in the league.
“But if you look at those games, we’ve played a lot of close games. There’s no substitute for winning, but this weekend [against first-place Robert Morris] is going to be a huge series against a top team.”
Last weekend, the Falcons swept American International for their third straight four-point weekend. As Serratore noted, however, it wasn’t an easy task. Friday’s game required an overtime strike from Cole Gunner to get past the Yellow Jackets; it was the team’s second extra-time win during the streak and fourth one-goal victory.
On Saturday, however, the team completely broke out. The Falcons outshot AIC 27-10 through two periods and opened up a 4-1 lead with two goals from Erik Baskin and one each from Ben Kucera and Scott Holm. After AIC scored to cut the lead to 4-2 early in the third, Holm struck again on the power play to end the threat. Air Force added a short-handed, empty-net goal — the first of the year for Kyle Mackey — to take a 6-2 victory.
The winning streak created murmurs around college hockey that the Falcons are back at it. Observers are shifting their eyeballs west to a team known for making noise as seasons draw to a close. Last season, Air Force went 9-5-4 through the 2013 part of the year, then closed on an 11-7 clip in 2014 to finish in third place.
The year before that, a 6-8-4 record in 2012 gave way to an 11-3-3 record in the 2013 portion of the year for a second-place finish. In 2011-12, Air Force went on a 7-2-3 clip to end the season. In 2010-11, they lost to Niagara, 5-4 in overtime, on Feb. 12. Their next loss came via a 2-1 overtime decision on March 25 in the East Regional semifinal against Yale.
“We have been a good second-half team [through the years],” said Serratore, “but I don’t really know how or why that happens. If I knew why, I could write a book and retire.
“We’ve been really good to not get ahead of ourselves,” he continued. “Every team wants to separate themselves and get one of the top five spots. Every coach wants his team to have a first-round bye. So far, we’ve been able to make a move, but we have to keep it going, and we’re going to learn a lot about who we are as a team when we play Robert Morris.”
This weekend’s series against Robert Morris is going to be a must-see test for both teams. The Colonials re-entered the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll this week after winning a pair of one-goal games against Holy Cross. Having won four in a row and five out of six, the Colonials’ 31 points is four ahead of second-place Canisius, and they’re going west to avenge what Air Force did to them at home. Back in November, the Falcons took three points from the Colonials in a pair of overtime games.
“Robert Morris has the team that every coach in the league wants,” said Serratore. “They’re good, they’re deep and they’re older. They are what everyone wants to be. They have a talented offense; they’re not a team we can go up against and try to outscore. So we need to be really strong defensively and play well in our game in order to go out and beat them.”
This weekend will feature three return series from the first half of the season and five teams all in the hunt for one of the coveted first-round byes:
• First-place Robert Morris lost to and tied fourth-place Air Force at home back in November. Down 3-1 in the Friday game, the Colonials scored once before the end of the second period, then tied the game in the third period. The next night, Robert Morris tied the game at 1-1 with another third-period goal, only to see Scott Holm score less than 30 seconds into the extra period for a 2-1 Air Force win. In both games, the Colonials dramatically outshot Air Force in the third period.
• During that same weekend in November, Bentley took three points with a pair of overtime games from Mercyhurst. On Friday, the teams traded four lead changes and five second-period goals en route to a 4-4 tie. On Saturday, Bentley rallied from a two-goal, second-period deficit to win in overtime 5-4 in a game where Andrew Gladiuk scored a hat trick. This weekend, the Lakers will entertain the Falcons at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.
• In early December, Holy Cross swept Niagara as part of a 6-1-3 stretch. Since that series, the Crusaders are 1-7-1 with six straight losses. Seventh-place Holy Cross faces last-place Niagara hoping to reenergize their season.
The easy road home
With the playoff stretch kicking up, it’s worth looking who has the easiest road to clinching a more favorable position en route to Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
• Of the teams in the top five, Mercyhurst and Air Force have the easiest path to sealing up home ice and a first-round bye. After this week, Air Force doesn’t play another team over .500 in league play until the last weekend against Canisius. Mercyhurst has three series left against over-.500 teams (Bentley, Canisius and Rochester Institute of Technology), but half of those games are at home. The other remaining games are against AIC and Niagara, two of the bottom three teams in the league.
• Canisius hasn’t lost since Jan. 3 and hasn’t lost a conference game since Nov. 29. The Golden Griffins are riding a three-game winning streak and are 6-0-1 in their last seven. But their road to the playoffs is the second-toughest in the league. Removing two home games against Army, they’ll play five road games at Robert Morris, Mercyhurst and Air Force with only one home game against the Lakers as part of a home-and-home series.
• Outside of the top five, Holy Cross has the easiest road with no trips left to the west and the easiest strength of schedule among remaining games. The Crusaders will play only three of their final 10 games on the road, none over a full weekend, and have zero games left against teams in the top four of the league.
• As the last place team, Niagara obviously has games left against teams ahead of it in the standings, but things aren’t going to get easier for the Purple Eagles. They have the toughest remaining schedule by far with six of their remaining 10 games on the road. Their final six games come against teams in the top four.
One of the greatest parts about college hockey season comes when the United States Military Academy takes on the Royal Military College of Canada in an exhibition game. It’s a series established in 1923 when the commandant of the RMC visited West Point to study the academic curriculum. He met the academy’s superintendent and agreed to a rivalry. The superintendent at the time? Douglas MacArthur.
The intense game is one of college hockey’s greatest attractions. It doesn’t count toward anything in the standings, yet it always brings out some of the teams’ respective bests.
Army scored four goals in the first period to pick up an 8-0 win over RMC last Saturday. Clint Carlisle had a goal and three assists; CJ Reuschlein had two goals and an assist; and Joe Kozlak, Maurice Alvarez and Ryan Nick each scored a goal and an assist for the Black Knights. Army outshot the Paladins 60-19, with Cole Bruns picking up the first shutout in the series since 2003.
It was the fourth straight Challenge Cup victory for West Point, and coach Brian Riley remained undefeated against the Canadian academy, improving to 6-0-1.
How ’bout those Pios?
As Chris Lerch mentioned at the conclusion of the weekend, the east is really struggling with western-based teams this season. But a stick tap is well deserved for the Sacred Heart Pioneers, who took three points from Mercyhurst last weekend at the Milford Ice Pavilion in Connecticut. More on this a little bit later thanks to goalie Alex Vazzano.
I love me some orange Jello
It’s always fun for us in the press box when RIT comes to town because the Tigers enjoy great fan support. With the Tigers traveling to play Bentley last weekend, I was able to partake in some fun with the Corner Crew alumni of the Boston area.
When House of Pain’s “Jump Around” is played over a loudspeaker, it’s referred to as “Orange Jello Time.” I have no idea why it’s called #orangejellotime, but I got to have some fun with the RIT faithful.
— Chris Lerch (@chrislerch) January 25, 2015
That came after I found myself caught in the pregame warmup games of the Tigers when I arrived at the rink. Forward Todd Skirving was kicking a soccer ball around with some of his teammates when I arrived at Ryan Arena with my radio and computer equipment. He volleyed the ball to me, which resulted in me taking part in the game with a few of the guys for a few seconds. My hamstrings hated me for it, but there was no denying I had a blast with the experience.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several different interactions with teams and fans throughout the years, and it just reinforces my belief that Atlantic Hockey provides some really great, clean fun in addition to a solid on-ice product.
Atlantic Hockey players of the week
The latest from the league’s head office in Winthrop, Massachusetts, which may or may not be beachfront property after the blizzard whacked the Northeast this week.
Player of the week — Canisius’ Ralph Cuddemi: Cuddemi notched six points, including four goals, in the weekend’s victories over Niagara. Scoring two goals in each game, he recorded the game winner in the third period on Friday.
Goaltender of the week — Sacred Heart’s Alex Vazzano: The senior netminder stopped 58 of the 61 shots he faced last weekend, coming within three minutes of a shutout in Saturday night’s 5-1 win over Mercyhurst. He made 38 saves in the win, adding 20 on Friday in the 2-2 tie with the Lakers. On the weekend, he had a .951 save percentage.
Co-rookies of the week — Canisius’ Ryan Schmelzer and Niagara’s Robert Angiolella: Schmelzer had a plus-7 rating and three points in the victories over the Purple Eagles, and he tied the program record for a single game with a plus-5 during Saturday’s 6-4 victory. He has a plus-14 rating on the year.
Angiolella scored three points for the Purple Eagles on Saturday as Niagara cut into 4-1 and 5-3 deficits against Canisius. His goal with less than a minute left and the goalie pulled was the fourth Niagara goal of the night.
Defenseman of the week — Robert Morris’ Alex Bontje: Five blocked shots in a single weekend. That’s enough to earn him honors from the league and an ice bath to soothe the bruises he almost assuredly incurred.