At the beginning of the season, Atlantic Hockey touts itself as a league where every game matters. An unexpected win or loss in October, when teams haven’t quite developed their season identity, forms an immediate factor in a league where positioning is dictated by single point differentials.
Everything changes, however, when the calendar switches to February. The season starts winding down, and premium points become critical points. A weekend sweep becomes a massive boost, and the opportunity to settle some of the playoff positioning becomes more opportunity than hope.
Air Force capitalized on that opportunity this weekend, charging through Bentley for four points with a sweep of two wins. By earning four points, the Falcons cemented a first round bye and virtually assured themselves of home ice in the second round with several scenarios that would clinch.
“It’s huge,” head coach Frank Serratore said following Saturday’s victory. “Our goal every year is to finish in the top four, to get that bye and play at home in the quarterfinals. And the way we’ve gone about this – we’re seven out of eight on the road since Christmas, which is not easy to do in any league.”
Being able to have success on the road is something that will serve the Falcons well as they prepare to return home. They’ll finish the season with four of their final six games at Cadet Ice Arena, which means they’ll have a great opportunity to still finish first. They exit this weekend one point behind Canisius for the league’s top spot.
“We’re just playing very steady and very consistent,” Serratore said. “We’re not playing frantically, and we’ve flat-lined in a good place. We’ve shown an ability to win on the road, and we’ve shown the ability to come from behind, which we did (in Friday’s 6-1 victory), and when you have the ability to win on the road and win from behind, you have the ability to win championships.”
In the Clinch
Following Saturday’s game, both Canisius and Air Force have sewn up two of the five byes into the second round. The Griffins took three points from Army West Point this past weekend to remain in first place. Like the Falcons, they have a route to clinch home ice as early as Friday, though their route will be more direct.
After them, though, nothing is for certain. Six points separates second place from third, but six points separates third from eighth. Three teams are currently tied for third, with sixth place just two points back.
That said, Sacred Heart’s overtime winner over Mercyhurst on Saturday kept hundreds of permutations still in play. The Pioneers are now within two points of eighth place Bentley following the win, which was a see-saw affair in Erie.
Vito Bavaro’s game-winning goal was the fourth lead change. After Mercyhurst took a 1-0 lead in the first, Mitch Nylen’s power play goal tied things up before the intermission. The Pioneers then took the lead in the second, only to watch Kyle Dutra score on the power play to tie it up again. In the third, Jeff Carroll again put Sacred Heart on top by one, but Joshua Lammon tied things up with under eight minutes to go.
Running on Idle
An idle team this late in the season almost always has the most anxious weekend since there’s no chance to control their own destiny. This past weekend, Niagara sat out while watching the rest of the league assure them of a road series in the first round.
Next weekend, it’ll be Mercyhurst’s turn. The Lakers, currently tied for fourth with Army West Point and Holy Cross with 24 points, will sit out league play this weekend as they travel to Bowling Green for their final non-conference games. I can’t speak for head coach Rick Gotkin, but I personally believe a team would feel better if they could play their way into control.
They also won’t be able to fend off any team that’s behind them in the standings. RIT is two points behind them for seventh place, and Bentley is just four points back following this past weekend.
Scheduling is far from a perfect science, especially with an odd number of teams in the league, but this is one of those situations where, late in the season, fans have to deal with a little bit of the frustrations surrounding it.