At American International College, a strong character team has always been built on sportsmanship and academic progress.
Unfortunately for the players in uniform, though, that didn’t translate to winning percentage.
So when Eric Lang returned to Springfield, he knew he had to help build a hidden hockey culture started by generations of players who dedicated their souls to the Yellow Jacket black and gold.
This season, those foundational stones finally found a footing.
The Yellow Jackets entered the regular season’s last week looking to clinch a first round home series, but a 2-0 setback to Holy Cross opened the door for both Niagara and Bentley. On Saturday, the Purple Eagles battled Canisius while Bentley roared out to a 1-0 lead at home. But after four periods of scoreless hockey, AIC decided enough was enough, rallying for a 2-1 lead and eventually winning a hard-fought 3-2 decision.
For the first time in program history, AIC earned the right to host a first round, Division I playoff series.
“It’s very uplifting,” Lang said. “Our guys had to win a real pressure hockey game against Bentley where the winner had home ice. So first and foremost, it was checking the box to play the right way, staying to our identity and not straying from who we are. In those pressure packed games, you can get away from that. It was very loud (in the Bentley Arena), and I just loved the way our guys battled through and came away on the other side.”
It was the culmination of a season-long build and crescendo. AIC started the year 0-5-1 before rallying to beat then-No. 11 Penn State in overtime. The Yellow Jackets then found their proverbial sea legs and rattled off a 4-1-1 record to rocket into an Atlantic Hockey conversation from which they didn’t retreat in the first half. Doubters had their ammunition, though, with the second-half schedule, which began with a trip to Northeastern and included three trips to western schools, including Air Force, with only four home games.
“It was a tough stretch for sure,” Lang said. “We had back-to-back western pod trips (to Canisius and Mercyhurst), then came home before going back out to Air Force, only to come home to have to go up to UMass Lowell on a Tuesday. But we were better for it because we bore some scars from that 0-5-1 start. When we played Northeastern, I saw that as a pivotal moment for our group. The result wasn’t what we were looking for (AIC lost, 3-1), but we leaned on that and our guys got confidence from it. (Now) this group believes they can beat everybody, and there’s a difference between being good and thinking you’re good.”
AIC is good, and the stats back it up. The Yellow Jackets enter the postseason as one of Atlantic Hockey’s stoutest defensive teams. They haven’t allowed 30 or more shots since a January 27 loss to Robert Morris, and freshman goaltender Stefano Durante ranks second in the league with a 2.25 goals against average. They’re a perfect 7-0-3 when holding a lead after two periods, and they went 4-1 in league play (5-1 overall) in one-goal games, both of which will become factors when the postseason begins.
“Everything that we do is all habit based,” Lang said. “It’s all stick on puck and making sure we take great angles. We talk a lot about back pressure and making sure our defensemen stay up. We pulled off ten backchecks against a very dangerous Bentley team on the rush, and we believe that wins hockey games. But more importantly, the guys in the room believe that it wins hockey games.”
It’s a model built by the Yellow Jackets’ decision at a program level. When Lang returned to AIC, he decided to embrace a model built around the school’s international identity. The coaches dedicated to finding players who would fit the model, and it’s carved out a niche and mindset that’s now unique to the Springfield, Massachusetts campus.
“We took a flyer on this European model, and it’s been great for us,” Lang said. “But we took a little risk on it and it’s worked out. We’re absolutely married to making sure we recruit guys with an ‘A mindset,’ that can develop and be unbelievably coachable. They’ve got culture and character through the roof. If they don’t check that box, we won’t recruit them. And I think we’re seeing results because of how guys like Jared Pike and Joel Kocur develop. They were good players, but they weren’t great players. We’re seeing them become very good players because of their mindset.”
It’s something that’s encapsulated the AIC campus. AIC played its last game at the Olympia Ice Center, a municipal, three-rink facility, before a listed attendance of less than 100 fans. Last week, Senior Day against Holy Cross drew well over 2,000 fans to the MassMutual Center, a professional facility utilized by the American Hockey League.
“We’re coming up on our 70th year of AIC hockey,” Lang said. “We’ve got some great alumni, and when you win some hockey games, people want to become more invested. Our group has been so unbelievably supportive, and they’re starting to come out of the woodwork now. It’s been really neet for us to have traction with our alumni.
“At our last home game, we had 3,000 people in the building. I’m just as proud of that as our other accomplishments because our guys are out in the communities, volunteering at elementary schools and at youth hockey. They’re seeing that return on their investment, and it’s a long way from a couple of hundred people at the Olympia.”
AIC now enters the postseason in unchartered territory because it really hasn’t been in a favorable position. Though the Yellow Jackets pushed teams to three games twice since 2013, they still haven’t advanced out of the first round since they beat Army West Point in a one-game divisional playoff back in 2011. And even though they’re at home, they’re in the middle of the tightest Atlantic Hockey season ever. They’ll host a Niagara team that finished right on their heels and who split a series back in November.
“When you look at the standings, we’re in pretty good company with Robert Morris and RIT,” Lang said. “We’re a point away from them and only 10 points out of first. But the league is at a place where anyone can beat anyone in the playoffs because of the parity. It’s a great league and we’ve done a great job with older players, which is our league’s competitive advantage. Top to bottom, anybody in our league can go out and beat anybody in the country.”
The Yellow Jackets will host the Purple Eagles in their best-of-three series this weekend at the MassMutual Center in Downtown Springfield. Each game will begin, including the if-necessary third game, at 1:05 p.m. due to home games for the Springfield Thunderbirds.
Battle for Pentagon Supremacy
Saturday night finally settled the tangled web of chaos surrounding the league’s final three bye slots.
Army West Point, Air Force and RIT all entered the season finale with a chance at fourth place while Holy Cross sat in third place patiently awaiting after wrapping up on Thursday with a win against AIC. Army West Point held off a late-game Sacred Heart surge, while Air Force still managed a tie against Robert Morris despite Brady Ferguson’s game-tying goal. Mercyhurst, meanwhile, rallied past RIT in the third period.
As a result, Army West Point finished fourth, and Air Force finished fifth, meaning the two academies will meet next week in the quarterfinal round. It’s a rematch of last year’s single-elimination semifinal in Rochester that was won by Air Force. It’s also a rematch of this year’s regular season matchup won by Army West Point, who swept the Falcons for the first time in almost 10 years.
The rivals rarely meet in the playoffs despite being one of Atlantic Hockey’s most glamorous matchups. They’ve only played five games in the playoffs and met in a best-of-three series only once – the 2010 Atlantic Hockey Quarterfinals in which Air Force swept the Black Knights (3-0, 4-2).
This is the first time Air Force will head east. They hosted that best-of-three series in ‘10, and the other two matchups happened in Rochester. Air Force beat Army in the semifinal game last year and won the 2007 Atlantic Hockey Championship by defeating their service brothers, 6-1, in its first year in the league.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
Every coach wants his team to be playing its best hockey at the end of the year, but recent Atlantic Hockey history shows that a hot team can ride that crest straight to the league championship.
The best example will always be the 2014 Robert Morris Colonials. RMU was 2-10-2 that year after finishing the first half with a tie against Mercyhurst. They then ripped off 11 second half wins, finishing the regular season 13-16-5. They rode that wave into a postseason where they beat Army and Connecticut in best-of-three series before wiping out nationally-ranked Niagara and Canisius for the league championship.
This year, the league’s three hottest teams in the final month of the season all earned byes. Mercyhurst went 12-2-2 in the second half of the year, losing only one game in regulation en route to the league’s regular season championship. Air Force is right on its heels, going 7-2-2 in the final month and 10-3-2 in the second half to finish fifth.
Air Force will head to West Point to take on the surging Black Knights next week. Army West Point went 5-3-2 in the last month of the season, finishing up a 7-3-4 second half.
But that doesn’t mean there are no teams to watch out for in the first round. RIT won five games in the last month of the year, and Sacred Heart won four – they’ll meet each other this weekend. And Bentley rallied from a 1-6-3 start to the second half to finish the year with four wins since the last weekend in January.
Get Your Maalox Ready
It’s playoff season, which remains the return of the best and worst thing about sports – hockey postseason overtime.
Nothing is like it. It’s sports’ greatest adrenaline rush, even as it’s the most nerve-wracking and, at times, crushing part about this game.
The past four AHC first rounds have featured at least one overtime game, with two of those postseasons ending a team’s season in Game 3. In 2014, Holy Cross won the second overtime game of its series with RIT, and Bentley eliminated Sacred Heart in double overtime last year. Bentley’s double-OT thriller was the second game to stretch beyond one overtime after Niagara beat AIC 1-0 back in 2014.
But those games are hardly the feather in the Holy Cross or Niagara cap. The Crusaders and Purple Eagles battled into a third overtime in 2015 before Holy Cross won 2-1 to extend its series.
Since the introduction of the best-of-three format to the first round in 2012, that one season (2013) is the only time no series featured an extra frame. The lesson? The postseason will hit hard and fast right away, so get your Maalox ready.
Players of the Week
Player/Rookie of the Week: Tucker DeYoung, Army West Point
Defensive Player of the Week: Joseph Duszak, Mercyhurst
Goalie of the Week: Paul Berrafato, Holy Cross