Three Things: The long and winding road

So here we are again in Atlantic Hockey, another postseason run to the roses upon us. It’s amazing how the start of the playoffs, a time of tumultuous finishes (especially for a one-berth league to the national tournament), is essentially calmer than the storm leading up to it. In typical AHC fashion, an 11-team demolition derby heads into its final two weeks with virtually nothing fully decided.

There’s been some separation, with Air Force pulling two points ahead of Holy Cross in second place and RIT riding the crest of goalie Nick Amato (more on him in a bit) to a weekend split with AIC. Further down, though, only four points separate what would be a quarterfinals home series from a first round series from Holy Cross to Canisius.

Then there’s more separation, with the Golden Griffins now three points up on Bentley thanks to a four-point weekend. But the Falcons, who enter a bye week, are only three points up on Sacred Heart, meaning they could, conceivably, go, in two weeks time, from a team on the rise with a five game unbeaten streak threatening for fifth place to a team on the road in the first round.

Even down in the bottom of the league, where Niagara beat AIC a couple of weeks ago, there’s a tie for 10th place.

The bottom line is that the entire AHC is going to bounce like a pinball against bumpers and buzzers. There has to be a twist, but there really isn’t. However it shakes out will leave a well-paved road to the final. For right now, however, the big story, once again, remains that things are coming to focus on the long and winding road.

Cruising altitude

After losing on Friday to Holy Cross, Air Force rallied on Saturday for a 4-2 victory over the host Crusaders. It was a game where the Falcons never trailed but wound up tied on multiple occasions. Holy Cross rallied from down 1-0 and 2-1 to tie the game up, but each time the Falcons managed to strike first to break up the tie games.

That puts Air Force in cruising altitude. Robert Morris still controls the league table with 34 points, but the Falcons’ 31 points all but assures them of a first round bye. They have a six point lead on sixth place Canisius with eight remaining points up for grabs, meaning they’ve essentially stamped their ticket to the quarterfinals round along with the Colonials.

Friday’s loss was the first Falcon loss since Bentley beat Air Force out in Colorado, 5-3. In the time since, Air Force is 8-1-3, outscoring opponents 37-16. It was also the first time they allowed three or more goals since that Bentley loss.

Despite the split, Air Force is continuing to roll. That’s a frightening prospect entering the postseason stretch, where the Falcons created a virtual playground. After winning five titles in six years, however, Air Force is looking for their first trophy in four years, and they’re putting pressure on Robert Morris for the top seed along the way.

Watch out for West Point

As predicted (although on wrong nights), Army West Point picked up a split with first place Robert Morris this weekend, winning a 3-1 game on Friday before dropping a 3-0 decision on Saturday.

It was a weekend all about Black Knight goalie Parker Gahagen, who made 39 saves. We’ve been looking for the team who could be the dark horse candidate coming down the stretch hot, and it’s beginning to appear, more and more, like Army is that squad. Gahagen added 43 saves in the defeat on Saturday, putting him at the front of the line for weekly honors.

He’s made 35-plus saves in three of his last four games, making 38 in a tie against Holy Cross last weekend. With their recent run that included a six game unbeaten stretch, Army’s pulled within striking distance of sixth place. They sit in eighth place, good enough for a home series if the season ended today, one point back of seventh place Bentley and four points behind sixth place Canisius.

The last Army West Point home playoff game was in 2011, but that stands to fall this year. The cadets play three of their final four games at home, with two home games coming up this week against Mercyhurst. That’ll lead to a season-ending home-and-home with Bentley, the team sitting directly in front of them (and who is idle this week). Army sits one point behind those Falcons, four points behind sixth place Canisius.

With the Golden Griffins playing Sacred Heart (the team two points behind Army for the final home playoff slot), things are going to get very interesting in the race for home ice in the first round.

Who is this guy?

So in full disclosure, I was typing this up on Saturday night and accidentally wound up publishing it. So if you’re reading this late, you’re not crazy – I really only did two things instead of three. But nevertheless, here’s the third:

If you haven’t heard of Nick Amato, you’re probably not alone. A 5’7″ netminder who played last year for the RIT club hockey team, he probably thought this weekend would be spent playing the final two games of the year against Drexel. But with Christian Short and Mike Rotolo both sidelined, the diminutive goalie from the hockey hotbed of Fort Lauderdale, Florida found himself in net, starting for a top four team in the AHC, in a key playoff race series against AIC.

There were growing pains. Despite RIT outshooting the Yellow Jackets by a 103-37 margin over the course of the weekend, the Tigers only earned a split in a pair of one-goal games. But the fact remains that one of the stories of the weekend is that “next man up” duties fell to a guy who, when thrust into the spotlight, managed to get a first career varsity win.

With the split, RIT managed to stay ahead of the game in third place, currently in a position for a first round bye and quarterfinals home series. In a season about team hockey, if this isn’t an indication of what that means, then I don’t know what is.