Rotolo’s return gives RIT a boost in Atlantic Hockey playoffs

RIT’s Mike Rotolo missed more than two months with a lower-body injury (photo: Omar Phillips).

The final three games of the Atlantic Hockey season are on tap as four teams head to Rochester, N.Y., with one goal in mind.

It’s been clear for weeks now that no AHC team was going to finish high enough in the PairWise Rankings to secure an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, so for these four squads, the Big Dance started two weeks ago with the advent of the league’s playoffs. It’s especially the case now that we’re down to single-elimination games: Lose, and your season is over.

Atlantic Hockey playoffs

See the tournament bracket and get links to schedules and stories at Atlantic Hockey Playoff Central.

Three familiar sets of jerseys will inhabit Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena plus a black and gold model that hasn’t been seen at this particular party in a few years.

Top-seeded Robert Morris, No. 2 Air Force and No. 5 Rochester Institute of Technology account for eight of the nine playoff titles won since the conference moved its championship to Rochester in 2007.

The Colonials and Tigers return from last season, while this is the first trip for Air Force since 2012 and Army West Point’s first since 2008.

“Obviously, they’re all very good teams,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said when asked to assess the competition. “They’re well coached and they’re deep.”

Wilson’s Tigers limped to the finish line with a rash of injuries but got some players back for last weekend’s road quarterfinal sweep of Mercyhurst. One of them was goaltender Mike Rotolo, who hadn’t seen action since Jan. 3 when he suffered a lower-body injury in a game at, coincidently, the Mercyhurst Ice Center.

Bringing in Rotolo on just a week’s practice was a hunch, Wilson said.

“He came out for practice on Monday and he looked really good, like he hadn’t been off at all,” said Wilson. “He said he felt good. We waited a few more days and then made the decision. I think it was easier to make because of the way he practiced and that it was a three-game series.”

Rotolo stopped 52 of 54 shots in 2-1 and 4-1 wins by the Tigers, who got a boost from the junior goalie, and not by just his play in net.

“He’s a fiery player,” said Wilson. “He’s got a contagious personality. He motivates guys. He rallies our team.”

Also making some big contributions is rookie Liam Kerins. Six of his 11 goals this season have come in his last seven games. Kerins skates with fellow rookies Gabe Valenzuela (12 goals) and Erik Brown (seven goals).

“They’ve all gotten up to speed as the season’s gone along,” said Wilson. “The freshmen in general have gone a good job.”

The Tigers face a familiar opponent in Air Force, which took three of four points from RIT in Colorado Springs in early February. The teams met in the tournament quarterfinals last season, a sweep by RIT at the Polisseni Center.

But the history is different at Blue Cross Arena. Air Force is 3-0 against RIT there, outscoring the Tigers 10-0 in those games.

“They’re a defensive-minded team, and teams like that do well in the playoffs,” said Wilson. “They have a good, structured defense that slows you down in neutral ice. They get scoring by committee and take advantage of their opportunities.”

The contenders

Robert Morris has a senior-heavy lineup that’s looking for another trip to the NCAA tournament (photo: Omar Phillips).

Four teams, four stories, one dream.

Robert Morris: The veterans

The Colonials expected to be here; the rest of the league expected it, too. Robert Morris was the consensus No. 1 in the coaches’ preseason poll, and it backed that up by going wire-to-wire to win its second consecutive regular season title.

RMU boasts one of the top offenses in the nation, led by seniors Zac Lynch (52 points) and Greg Gibson (49 points). The Colonials have six players with at least 30 points, and seven with 10 or more goals.

In net, Terry Shafer has a .930 save percentage and four shutouts this season.

In all, five of the Colonials’ top six scorers, their top two defensemen and starting goaltender are all seniors, going for one last shot at the brass ring.

Rochester Institute of Technology: The defending champs

The Tigers had a roller coaster of a regular season, starting slow, getting on a roll in January and then cooling off in part due to the injury bug.

No team needed the first-round bye more than RIT, which was able to return some key players to the healthy fold.

After riding a dominant first line to the title and an NCAA first-round upset of top-seeded Minnesota State last season, RIT’s offense is more balanced this season, with no player having more than 12 goals so far (Myles Powell and Valenzuela each has a dozen).

Identical twins Brady and Chase Norrish were both named to all-conference teams on defense, and Rotolo returned from a nine-week injury to post one of his best weekends of the season in net in the quarterfinals.

Air Force: The overachievers

The cupboard looked bare for Air Force coach Frank Serratore at the end of last season. His Falcons lost their top three scorers, their top-scoring defenseman and both starting goalies, each deciding to leave early.

On the basis of what was (and wasn’t) coming back, Air Force was picked seventh in the preseason coaches poll.

The Falcons were a mediocre 6-8-2 at the end of 2015 but are 14-3-3 since, including wins in their last five games, surrendering just four total goals.

Freshman Shane Starrett has been the star, posting a 1.93 GAA and a .923 save percentage. He was named to the all-conference first team as well as the league’s all-rookie team.

Sophomore Ben Kucera has paced a balanced offense with 15 goals, while classmate Tyler Ledford leads the team in points (27).

With just three upperclassmen seeing significant game time, this young team has matured quickly.

Army West Point: The Cinderella

In recent years, there’s a been a team that’s caught fire at the right time and rode the momentum to the playoff title.

Canisius won it all as a seventh seed in 2013. In 2014, Robert Morris was in last place at Christmas and stormed to take the crown as a No. 5 seed. Last year, RIT got hot, moved in the final weeks from seventh to third and just kept going all the way to the NCAA tournament.

Could Army West Point be the “it” team this year?

Picked to finish 10th in the preseason poll, the Black Knights starting putting things together at the end of January and jumped into sixth place on the final weekend of the regular season by taking three points from Bentley.

In the playoffs, Army West Point knocked off American International and then swept Holy Cross on the road to earn a trip to Rochester.

Success in the postseason usually starts with goaltending, and junior Parker Gahagen has been practically untouchable, posting a 0.80 GAA and a .973 save percentage through five playoff games.

Another young team, Army West Point’s three leading scorers are underclassmen, led by sophomore Conor Andrle’s 13 goals and 33 points.

Four teams. Four stories. One dream.

Curse of the top seed

The top seed entering the Atlantic Hockey tournament has made it to Rochester every year since the tournament moved there in 2007 but has managed to close the deal only three times: Air Force in 2009 and 2012, and RIT in 2010.

Five times, No. 1 has been vanquished in the semifinals, including the last three seasons.

Robert Morris carries the target on its back again this season and will face Army West Point in the early game on Friday. RIT and Air Force will rekindle their postseason rivalry in the nightcap.

The best

The league has announced its all-conference and all-rookie teams and will be handing out individual awards on Thursday. My co-columnist Dan Rubin and I have made our selections.

First team
Dan:
F — Max French, Bentley
F — Greg Gibson, Robert Morris
F — Zac Lynch, Robert Morris
D — Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
D — Chase Norrish, RIT
G — Parker Gahagen, Army West Point

Chris:
F — Max French, Bentley
F — Greg Gibson, Robert Morris
F — Zac Lynch, Robert Morris
D — Chase Norrish, RIT
D — Tyson Wilson, Robert Morris
G — Shane Starrett, Air Force

Second team
Dan:
F — Shane Conacher, Canisius
F — Justin Danforth, Sacred Heart
F — Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley
D — Brady Norrish, RIT
D — Tyson Wilson, RMU
G — Shane Starrett, Air Force

Chris:
F — Shane Conacher, Canisius
F — Brandon Denham, Robert Morris
F — Ralph Cuddemi, Canisius
D — Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
D — Johnny Hrabovsky, Air Force
G — Parker Gahagen, Army West Point

Third team
Dan:
F — Ralph Cuddemi, Canisius
F — Evan Jasper, Sacred Heart
F — Derek Barach, Mercyhurst
D — Johnny Hrabovsky, Air Force
D — Chase Golightly, Robert Morris
G — Paul Berrafato, Holy Cross

Chris:
F — Justin Danforth, Sacred Heart
F — Andrew Gladiuk, Bentley
F — Kyle Schmidt, Bentley
D — Chase Golightly, Robert Morris
D — Brady Norrish, RIT
G — Terry Shafer, Robert Morris

Honorable mention (combined picks of Dan and Chris)
Conor Andrle (Army West Point), Gabe Antoni (Bentley), Derek Barach (Mercyhurst), Mike Barrett (Holy Cross), Erik Baskin (Air Force), Paul Berrafato (Holy Cross), Matt Blomquist (Bentley), Jake Bolton (Holy Cross), Caleb Cameron (RIT) Jonathan Charbonneau (Mercyhurst), David Friedmann (Robert Morris), Cameron Heath (Canisius), Simon Hofley (Canisius), Tanner Jago (Bentley), Tyler Ledford (Air Force), Zach Luczyk (Sacred Heart), Brett Magnus (Sacred Heart), Dylan McLaughlin (Canisius), Josh Mitchell (RIT), TJ Moore (Holy Cross), Alex Murray (American International), Austin Orszulak (American International), Tyler Pham (Army West Point), Derian Plouffe (Niagara), Myles Powell (RIT), Jack Riley (Mercyhurst), Ryan Schmelzer (Canisius), Jackson Teichroeb (Niagara), Gabe Valenzuela (RIT)

All-rookie
Dan:
F — Derek Barach, Mercyhurst
F — Gabe Valenzuela, RIT
F — Matt Serratore, Air Force
D — Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
D — Tanner Jago, Bentley
G — Shane Starrett, Air Force

Chris:
F — Derek Barach, Mercyhurst
F — Dylan McLaughlin, Canisius
F — Gabe Valenzuela, RIT
D — Cameron Heath, Canisius
D — Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst
G — Shane Starrett, Air Force

Player of the year
Dan:
Zac Lynch, Robert Morris

Chris:
Zac Lynch, Robert Morris

Rookie of the year
Dan:
Lester Lancaster, Mercyhurst

Chris:
Shane Starrett, Air Force

Defenseman of the year
Dan:
Chase Norrish, RIT

Chris:
Tyson Wilson, Robert Morris

Coach of the year
Dan:
Brian Riley, Army West Point

Chris:
Frank Serratore, Air Force

Out of time

As the great sportswriter Thomas Boswell once observed, “Time begins on opening day.”

He was talking about the beginning of baseball season, but I’m reminded of it as the end of another college hockey season draws near.

The Atlantic Hockey championship and NCAA tournament awaits, and I’ll be covering both for USCHO.com, but this is our last time together in this way; the final column of the season. If time begins on opening day, then it’s almost run out.

As we say goodbye, I’m going to let Dan Rubin do most of the work for me. He wrapped up his final column last week and did a great job of thanking all those who helped him and me bring you coverage this season.

I’ll just add thanks, as always, to my family for their continued love and support.

Here’s to a fantastic finale.