Army West Point shows it’s capable of playing with Atlantic Hockey’s best

Clint Carlisle shares the Army West Point lead for goals with three (photo: Omar Phillips).

Scanning down the Atlantic Hockey standings, it’s easy to point out Army West Point for its struggles. Winless in league play at 0-5-3, the Black Knights are tied with Niagara for 10th place, but the Purple Eagles have four AHC games in hand. At first glance, it’s all a combination that makes the service academy dismissible to fans of teams with better results.

But looking within the numbers reveals a much different story. Yes, they opened the year 0-5-1, but the competition remained stiff. There was a game against Boston College, arguably the nation’s best team. There were two against Mercyhurst, currently perched in first place in the AHC. There were two against Bentley, an always-tough opponent tied for fifth with Rochester Institute of Technology, which Army also had to play.

In a league with a reputation of “no nights off,” the numbers don’t always tell the full story for what can be seen behind the scenes at Tate Rink.

Starting with the back end of the RIT weekend, Army West Point has been threatening to turn the corner. Trailing the Tigers 2-0 after the first period of that bout, the Black Knights scored twice in the second for a hard-fought 2-2 tie.

Three days later, they hit the road to take on former AHC rival Connecticut. Scoreless after two, the Black Knights scored at the 7:35 mark of the third, then added an empty netter to take a 2-0 victory, their first of the season.

They followed that up with last Friday’s thriller against Robert Morris. The Black Knights led at three different points, surrendering a third-period goal but salvaging a 4-4 tie in the process. Even with a loss on Saturday, that tie allowed them to come away from the weekend with a point against arguably the league’s best team. It was a watershed moment for a team opening up its season with just two nonconference games before Christmas.

“Last weekend, we played with Robert Morris, who is one of the top teams in the league. We went up and down the ice with them,” said Army West Point coach Brian Riley. “It’s disappointing that we had the lead three times and only came away with a tie, but the real positive takeaway is that we’re capable of playing with the best teams [in the league]. The next step is to learn how to win those types of games.”

With the tie, Army continued its building blocks on the first half of the year. Even through the tough stretch to open the year, the Black Knights began planting the seeds to get better in hopes that their best hockey would be in front of them. They’ve seen those positives, even though the wins haven’t yet come. But the breakthrough is right in front of them, even as the road ahead remains tricky.

“There’s been a lot of good [for us this year],” Riley said. “We have a good group of older guys on our team that set a good example, and we have a good crop of younger guys that are starting to develop. We knew the start of the season was going to be really challenging with a strong caliber of opponent, and we really looked forward to it. Our record could be better, but it’s great to see how our guys are really battling. Our best hockey is yet to come, and it starts with a good finish over the last three weekends of the first half of the season.”

Five of their next six games are on the road, beginning this weekend at Canisius. They’ll play a home-and-home series with Sacred Heart next week before heading to American International to close out the first half of the season. They’ll finally pick up a home stand after Christmas, when they play five of six at home against Merrimack, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart (home-and-home) and Air Force.

Falcons questing for local wins

Bentley’s Gabe Antoni stopped 44 shots in a 3-0 loss at Boston University on Tuesday (photo: Melissa Wade).

From the time it joined Division I in 2000 through the start of the 2007-08 season, Bentley played only two games against local Massachusetts schools not affiliated with the MAAC/AHC.

Starting in 2007, the Falcons began a stretch of playing at least one Massachusetts nonconference opponent for seven seasons. They played their first game against someone other than UMass-Lowell in 2008 when they played Northeastern, and they won their first game over a Bay State opponent when they beat the Huskies in 2010.

Two years ago, they stomped the region’s standard bearer, Boston University, with a 4-1 defeat.

Throughout the years, Bentley has transformed from a team long overlooked, becoming something of a player on the local scorecard. The Falcons have played every nonconference Massachusetts opponent from Hockey East or ECAC Hockey at least twice, with only Boston College (who they’ve never played) as the lone exception. With the increased level of competition comes higher expectations to establish themselves among the tradition and history of the programs historically dominating local headlines.

Earlier this season, Bentley famously swept Northeastern on back-to-back nights. Since those two wins, however, the Falcons have played two other Massachusetts teams with negative results. In early November, they went into the third period tied with Merrimack 1-1 before giving up four third-period goals. On Tuesday, they returned to Agganis Arena but lost 3-0 and were outshot 47-15.

“It’s certainly important [to play games against local teams] to our school to continue to grow the program,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “I think our league and our program are beyond [that point] of being happy to play in these buildings. Our expectation is to come in and win, and if you don’t win, you have to give your best effort.”

Now done with Massachusetts opponents for this season, Bentley turns its attention to another local opponent from a different New England state. They’ll head north to play New Hampshire on Saturday in their final nonconference game of the season. It’ll be the first meeting between the Falcons and Wildcats, providing another opportunity for Bentley to elevate the school among its local brethren.

“[UNH] is a very good club in their building [at the Whittemore Center],” said Soderquist. “It’s a big sheet, and we’ve been struggling a little bit on the bigger sheet. So we’ll need to go back and do some soul searching and figure it out pretty fast [with a quick turnaround].”

Numbers game

Entering this week, here’s some of the stat breakdowns of where AHC teams fit on the national scope:

• Robert Morris sits as the second-best offense in the nation, behind only Boston College, averaging 4.40 goals per game. BC and Robert Morris actually separate from the rest of the nation by a wide margin, with the Eagles averaging 4.42 goals per game. Third-place Penn State trails by nearly a half a goal per game.

• Behind the Colonials, Mercyhurst’s 3.50 goals per game is tied with Denver and UNH for ninth in the nation. They are the only two AHC teams in the top 20 in scoring.

• Conversely, zero AHC teams rank in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense, although the best defenses in the league are tightly packed. Robert Morris ranks 18th at 2.40 goals per game, while Sacred Heart is 20th at 2.54. Bentley is tied for 21st with Clarkson at 2.55 goals per game.

• Army West Point is the second-most penalized team in the nation, averaging 21.1 minutes per game. That’s 0.1 minutes per game fewer than the team with the most penalty minutes, Boston College. Mercyhurst and Canisius rank fifth and sixth as teams spending the most time in the sin bin.

• Robert Morris and Bentley are the two best AHC teams on the power play. The Colonials have the best power-play unit in the nation and are the only team over 30 percent. Bentley, perennially one of the best special teams units in college hockey, is tied for seventh with Western Michigan.

• Despite their success on the power play, the Colonials are tied for 51st nationally on the penalty kill. But of the eight teams behind, five are Atlantic Hockey teams.

Giving thanks

With Thanksgiving here, there’s one last news note requiring recognition. Last week, the Army West Point seniors passed through the academy tradition of Branch Night. Sitting with classmates and companies in historic Eisenhower Hall, they open envelopes upon orders and receive their United States Army branch assignments.

It’s a reminder that of the 60 Division I hockey teams, two American military service academies reside in Atlantic Hockey, a calling that goes above and beyond anything they’ll do inside of a hockey rink.

“As a coach, I’m so lucky to be at West Point,” Riley said. “The United States Army is getting great young men, and I’ve been so fortunate to watch them grow within the hockey program. It always feels like just yesterday they came to West Point, and now they’re getting ready for the next phase of their journey.”

The next milestone night for the West Pointers will be Post Night, occurring while the team is traveling to play at Niagara. At that point, the senior cadets find out the location of their station assignments around the globe upon graduation.

Players of the week

Here’s the latest honorees from the league offices.

Player of the week — Robert Morris’ Brandon Denham: Denham put up a five-point weekend against Army West Point, bringing his tallies to eight goals and six assists. With 14 points, he ranks 17th nationally in scoring.

Goaltender of the week — Air Force’s Shane Starrett: Playing on the road at Sacred Heart, Starrett stopped 44 of 47 shots against the Pioneers. His 1.44 GAA and .936 save percentage paced the Falcons to a three-point weekend, and his clutch performances included two saves during Friday’s overtime and 11 saves in the third period of a 3-2 comeback victory on Saturday.

Rookie of the week — Niagara’s Nick Farmer: Farmer had four assists on Niagara’s five goals in Friday’s overtime win over American International. Those four points were the most by any Purple Eagles player this season, and it was the first time anyone scored that many points for the school in over two years.

Defensive player of the week — AIC’s Ryan Polin: The Holt, Mich., native scored his first two collegiate goals, including a game winner, in a 4-2 victory on Saturday over Niagara. He blocked two shots during the weekend split with the Purple Eagles and finished the series with a plus-2 rating.

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