The 2015-2016 regular season is over, and in true Atlantic Hockey fashion, it went out with an incredible bang over the past weekend. Six places in the standings changed over the course of the final night on Saturday after a wild Friday set up a mad dash to the finish. After completion, the dust settled with a divisional style format and everyone with a silver lining to wherever they could’ve finished.
Let’s start at the end.
Since the season is over, let’s start with what we know, then work backwards at how we got there. Robert Morris finished first with 40 points, clinching their second straight regular season championship. Air Force finishes second thanks to a third-level tiebreaker, pushing Holy Cross into third place. RIT and Mercyhurst swapped positions, meaning the Tigers go to Erie after the Lakers swept them.
Further down the line, Army West Point finished sixth and will host 11th place American International while Canisius landed sevent and hosts 10th place Niagara. Sacred Heart will go to Bentley in the final playoff matchup.
That’s how we ended. How we got there? That’s where the fun REALLY begins.
Before the season, I said to a number of people that I really believed Army West Point could be a team to which I could hitch up my bandwagon. Even after they started 0-5-2, I really just had a vibe that they would be a tough out down the line.
Since that start to their season, the Black Knights are 10-8-7, and they’re starting to round into form as one of those teams prepping for a potentially magical run through the postseason. Starting with late January, they enter the playoffs on a 5-2-3 run, having gone from ninth in the standings to sixth in the course of a month.
They enter the playoffs with a defense that’s allowed more than two goals only twice through this last stretch. Parker Gahagen is tied for the league’s second best save percentage at .931, and his 2.23 goals against average is fourth best. This has all happened strictly under the radar behind some of the more glamorous programs, and it’s happened with an offense that lacks a flashy scorer.
On their senior night, Army WP trailed Bentley, 2-0, then pounded the Falcons at Tate Rink. On Saturday, when Canisius trailed Robert Morris, the Black Knights came back from down a goal in the third period to tie Bentley on the road, 2-2, assuring the program of its first home playoff game since 2011 and its first best-of-three home playoff series since 2008.
A few tricks left up their sleeves
Bentley is a team ravaged on its lineup. Missing six players from their forwards, head coach Ryan Soderquist forced his hand, cobbling together lines with a number of players who were either out of position, out of their regular slot on the chart, or just flat out out of the lineup.
So when Bentley tied AIC on Wednesday and lost to Army WP on Friday, the Falcons extended a winless streak to five games and looked like a team that would eventually fall out of the home ice race or backdoor their way in depending on what happened with Sacred Heart-Holy Cross.
Instead, Bentley rallied behind a fourth line with a little-used senior forward and two freshmen defensemen flanking him. On Friday, despite giving up six unanswered goals, Bentley raced out to a 2-0 lead thanks to the first career goal from senior Tyler Krause. Krause, who to that point only played in six games on the season and 44 games in his career, would later tally two assists on Saturday’s tie that sent the Falcons to home ice in the first round and put him in the conversation for Atlantic Hockey’s Player of the Week.
Those two goals on Saturday came from those two defensemen. Freshman Andy Chugg, a 6’4″ blue-liner from Mesa, Arizona with barely five games’ experience, scored the first after a dangle and toe-drag straight out of a video game, and Alexey Solovyev, a defenseman out of Moscow, Russia, scored the second on an absolute bomb. Both linemates collected assists on both goals as they all finished +2 on the weekend.
Couple that with Danny Kucerovy’s first career goal that staked Bentley to 2-0 lead on Friday before it turned into all Army, and every Falcon goal went to the bench and locker room for the firsts of everyone’s career.
Just the way they drew it up, right? To think I didn’t think this had “series of the weekend” potential written on it is crazy, but the true wildness is that Bentley, despite entering the playoffs on a six-game winless streak, managed to gain that point when they absolutely needed it with unsung heroes and true grinders.
As Bentley’s 2-2 tie on Saturday night was heading to overtime, both teams were clinching home ice. That’s because Holy Cross was able to complete a weekend sweep of Sacred Heart. The Pioneers, who were forced to play Saturday’s game without three players, including leading scorer Justin Danforth, will now travel to Bentley in a rematch of the 2012 First Round, in a building where they’ve had nominal success through the years.
Oh and Holy Cross? They won their way into at least a mathematical equation for second place but lost out on a tiebreaker to Air Force thanks to the tertiary tie-breaker. Splitting their four head-to-head matchups with the same amount of conference wins, Air Force’s +2 goal differential means they finish second and the Crusaders finish third.
Then there’s Mercyhurst. Entering the weekend with a mathematical probability to finish fifth for the second straight year, the Lakers swept RIT to earn the quarterfinals home series. RIT, who despite having Christian Short return to the ice, now goes on the road for the playoffs for the second time in three years, even though it’s with a bye. They’ll also wind up playing four or five straight games against the same opponent.