Atlantic Hockey teams look to build toward the finish as second half starts

Brandon Denham and Robert Morris kicked off the second half with wins over No. 14 Penn State and No. 8 UMass-Lowell at the Three Rivers Classic (photo: Omar Phillips).

The second half of the Atlantic Hockey season is underway after a couple of huge victories at the Three Rivers Classic for the Robert Morris Colonials. As the rest of the league prepares to join them in action following their New Year’s celebrations, here’s what to expect for the stretch run of Atlantic Hockey.

It’s a whole new ball game

From 2007 to 2012, Atlantic Hockey was the most predictable league in the nation. Air Force won five championships, with Rochester Institute of Technology winning the lone non-Falcons crown in 2010. It was a league built on dominance from its western schools, a conference of anything but parity.

In three seasons, all of that has changed. Beginning with the 2013 Atlantic Hockey tournament, the top four teams in the postseason have never made the championship semifinals at the same time. The top-seeded team hasn’t made the conference championship game. Coaches still talk about postseason seeding, but they increasingly discuss the need to be hitting the playoffs on a hot streak.

For the past two years, the hottest second-half team rode the crest of its best hockey to a league championship. Both Robert Morris (2014) and RIT (2015) won at least 10 games, and both lost four and tied two. The 2014 Colonials joined the 2013 Canisius Golden Griffins as the teams who competed in the first round of the AHC playoffs that won the championship.

Which sleeping giant could wake up in 2016?

If you’re looking for a team capable of hitting that hot streak in the second half of the season, there are plenty of candidates. Army West Point is one, with a four-game unbeaten stretch around Thanksgiving showing what the Black Knights are capable of. They opened up their second half of the year with a 3-2 victory over 20th-ranked Merrimack, a game in which Parker Gahagen made 35 saves.

Sacred Heart’s a good option. The Pioneers lost seven of eight games ahead of the winter break, but they remain one of the teams that generated the most preseason chatter. They’re starting January three points behind the cutoff for a quarterfinals home series with games left against everyone in front of them.

Air Force is always a factor. Starting the second half in seventh place, the Falcons have six of their first eight games in January at home. If they’re in the running for the first-round bye, they’ll play an intricate factor in so many different teams’ fate. The difference in where they finish could be the difference in where a team has to travel, and it’s always a discussion point down the stretch. If the right team has to go west, the team with the most Atlantic Hockey banners could once again make its way east to compete for a title.

And then there’s Bentley. The Falcons enter the second half of the season with arguably the best goaltending tandem in Atlantic Hockey. When Jayson Argue went down injured against RIT, senior Gabe Antoni stepped in more than admirably. They begin the second half as the goalies ranked first and second in the league in save percentage and second and third in GAA. Although Bentley’s offense scored one or zero goals in four of its final six first half games, it enters the second half in third place, meaning it’ll be a huge factor down the stretch.

The bumpy road to the tournament

Following its win in the Three Rivers Classic, Robert Morris is tied for 19th in the PairWise Rankings with Bowling Green. The Colonials have two more nonconference games against Dartmouth and Union, and while winning them won’t necessarily improve the Colonials’ position, losing to one or both could deal a blow for national tournament aspirations.

If Robert Morris is able to hold serve, it’ll be able to make a run at the tournament with the second half of its season. The Colonials’ biggest challenge comes at the end of January when they hit the road for a two-game series at Holy Cross. The games against the Crusaders, 22nd in the PairWise Rankings and tied with the Colonials for first place in the league table, will represent crucial opportunities to elevate the league’s profile.

While we focus on those big games, however, Robert Morris still needs to hold serve through the conference slate. With games against Bentley and Mercyhurst and a road trip to Air Force on its slate, it’s anything but a lock. That’s what will make the Colonials’ second half so compelling, and in a world of “no days off,” they’ll need to be on their game every night.

New rivalries will emerge

Air Force enters the second half tied for seventh place (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Scheduling is an inexact science, and when there are an odd number of teams in your league, it becomes that much tougher to figure out. But the second half of the season will be devoid of some of Atlantic Hockey’s deepest rivalries.

Niagara plays Canisius in January during the same weekend Air Force takes on Army West Point. In that same stretch, RIT and Bentley will play again in the final two games of the USCHO AHC Correspondents’ Series.

Outside of that, the lack of true, deep-seated rivalries means there will be new teams out there costing some of their league brethren a much-needed favorable playoff matchup or a first-round bye somewhere along the line.

Some of the weekends I’m eyeballing include a set of dates around Valentine’s Day in February. That’s when nearly everyone will be traveling in some capacity, including a Canisius trip east to Bentley, an Air Force trip to Holy Cross and an Army West Point trip to Robert Morris.

Although it’s sad that there’s a lack of a traditional rivalries, this is a great opportunity to develop new bad blood between teams and sow the seeds to make potential future matchups (i.e., in the playoffs) something worth remembering.

Someone will make me eat my hat

Every year, I make a prediction that turns into concrete proof that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. Two years ago, I spent the entire first half of the season picking Robert Morris, then turned around in the second half and kept picking against it. The postseason ended with me picking against the Colonials in the AHC championship – which didn’t work out well for me.

Last year, I picked Holy Cross to finish close to the basement of the league at the start of the season. The Crusaders turned around and finished sixth. This year, I once again placed them toward the lower part of the standings; they finished the first half of the season in a tie for first place.

I can’t pinpoint where exactly that will come from, but I’m looking forward to figuring out where and who will prove me wrong as the second half gets kicked up in spades this weekend.