There was once a time when Atlantic Hockey was essentially Air Force’s playground. They entered the league and promptly proved the separation between themselves and the rest of the conference, winning five banners in their first six seasons.
Then the rest of the league seemingly caught up to the Falcons, and the reputation of the conference changed to one built on parity. Even as RIT won back-to-back championships each of the past two seasons, they were a top four seed for only the first year, and the veritable demolition derby became about who plays hot at the right time and who can get the right puck luck.
Now, it’s their league once again, even if the league’s makeup is different. Air Force will represent Atlantic Hockey for a record sixth time, earning their way via a 2-1 victory over Robert Morris on Saturday night.
They now return to a national tournament where they’ve been competitive through the years. The Falcons are only 1-5 in NCAA play, but they’ve lost only one game by more than one goal with three of those defeats coming in overtime. In 2009, their epic double overtime loss to Vermont was in a Regional Final.
They’ll receive their assignment, likely as a #4 seed, today, and they’ll represent all 11 teams in the quest for national college hockey glory. Congratulations are in order to them.
A Different Era
At a surface level, Air Force winning the league gives the trophy back to a team that’s sustained success unlike any other program in any other conference. It’s easy to forget that the Falcons weren’t the top seed in the tournament, marking the fifth straight year where the top seed didn’t win the championship.
As our colleague Ed Trefzger noted after the championship game, new buildings, scholarships, and sustaining success in non-conference play is helping to make the league one of the toughest to win. That’s what will make this championship perhaps the most impressive for Air Force.
Atlantic Hockey will only have one team in the national tournament, but it comes with a different perspective. With all due respect to their teams, the WCHA will finish with teams further behind Atlantic Hockey in the Pairwise Rankings, meaning the league champion isn’t simply locked in as the lowest seed. It’s a small step forward, but it’s one that proves that this league is benefitting from looking inwards to improve.
The Next Challenge
Championship weekend is always a time for celebration. It gives all of us dramatic hockey played at a high level, and it’s the culmination of a season spent building to that moment. It sets the stage for our entry – set to include everyone, including those of us who cover the league – into the national tournament.
But the work isn’t done. This was a banner year for Atlantic Hockey, one built on new buildings, increased scholarships, and competitive success. As Air Force continues their season, there’s a next step for the conference as it enters its spiritual offseason. All of us will be paying attention, but it’s very much tinged with excitement.
There’s a frequently-used line used by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. After winning the Super Bowl, he always remarks that his team is four or five weeks behind the other teams in the postseason. So while we celebrate Air Force, remember that there are 10 other teams who are recommitting to taking what they just won. The cycle begins anew, and while it’ll be great to see what happens to the Falcons, it’s equally as exciting to think about what will happen as the future fast approaches.