The Atlantic Hockey regular season ended with such a frenzied rush that the playoffs could only serve as a potential buzzkill. Expectations, after all, went through the roof for exciting series, and it would take a couple of overtime games, probably with one or both going to two or three extra periods, to make us even think it could come close to the end of the run.
But then again, maybe expectations undersold what it really became.
Let’s start with AIC. The Yellow Jackets won their way into their first postseason home series, taking the ice on Friday and Saturday at 1:05 p.m. because of scheduling conflicts with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.
Sure it was a sweep, but how AIC got there will go down in the annals of school history. On Friday, a 4-1 win punctuated the shot differential. Niagara had 36 shots – a rarity against this Yellow Jacket squad – but didn’t score until the late stages of the third period. AIC had a 3-0 lead at that point despite finishing outshot by 14, and it ultimately won 4-1.
A Game One loss only made Niagara, who arguably outplayed AIC for stages on Friday, that much more aggressive, and Saturday’s game turned in one of the first truly great dramas of the postseason.
The Purple Eagles tied Game Two at 3-3 thanks to a goal by Derian Plouffe with less than six minutes remaining. It stayed that way for almost 33 minutes until Blake Christensen scored at the 8:02 mark of a second overtime period.
AIC head coach Eric Lang talked to me last week about watching his team earn some scars during the season. He also discussed why celebrating small victories are so important to this team. On Saturday, facing a very good Niagara team, the Yellow Jackets put both on display. They rallied in a pressure environment because they learned how in previous experiences, and they celebrated winning a best-of-three series for the very first time.
The Yellow Jackets now head to Canisius, which leads us to our next point.
You gotta have “Heart.”
Reread that segment above. I kicked off this week with AIC because it was the simplest weekend – which is insane given what happened in Springfield.
But let’s move next to Sacred Heart. The Pioneers dropped a 5-4 overtime decision in Game One at RIT and entered Saturday in a similar position to each of the past couple postseasons, needing to win on the road to extend their season.
Two years ago, Sacred Heart won the second game in overtime, only to lose the third game at Bentley. Last year, in a rematch against the Falcons, the team won the first game but lost the next two, including a third game that went to double overtime.
On Saturday, the Pioneers simply said enough was enough. Erik Brown’s 29th goal of the season gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead early in the third, a score that held until the last minute. That’s where, with the net empty and the season on the line, Austin McIlmurray scored his 12th goal, tying the game at 3-3 and sending it into overtime.
The game would extend to almost four and a half hours, ending just before 11:30 p.m. By the time Jackson Barliant scored, it was in its third overtime period. The Pioneers had knocked out a leg on the Tigers, and on Sunday, with a 2-0 victory, they pushed the home team over to earn their first playoff series victory since 2015.
What’s amazing about the triple overtime game is that RIT dominated the second frame. The Tigers outshot the Pioneers 15-6 in that period and had two power play attempts, but Sacred Heart simply willed itself into the third extra period.
Once again, it wasn’t that RIT played poorly. In fact, you could make a good case that they outplayed the Pioneers. But Sacred Heart was ready. The Pioneers, like the Yellow Jackets, had been battle tested and hardened over the course of the year. And when it came time to celebrate, they were ready to grab the proverbial brass ring.
Sacred Heart now heads to Mercyhurst to play the regular season champions.
My all-time favorite boxing trilogy is between Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti. They were two guys who stood in the middle of the ring and pounded each other for three bouts, hitting shot after shot, until someone was left standing.
The Bentley-Robert Morris series is a good comparison because, for three nights, the teams simply hit each other with everything they had. Neither team left anything on the table in a series that fell one shot shy of 200 cumulative across each night, though the Colonials walked away as the series victors.
Though Game One featured 72 shots on goal, goaltending kept it to a spiritual one-goal game. Alex Tonge’s second period goal remained the only score through the first 59 minutes before chaos broke free in the last 56 seconds.
Brandon Watt’s power play goal gave the Colonials a 2-0 lead, and under normal circumstances, it might have allowed RMU to coast home. But Luke Lynch’s penalty with 17 seconds left opened the door for the Falcons, who scored seven seconds later to cut the lead to 2-1. It created a frantic last faceoff, which was won by Tonge and scored on an empty net for a 3-1 final.
In Game Two, the teams rallied from three different deficits before the Falcons grabbed the victory. Luke Lynch scored early on the power play to give RMU a 1-0 lead, but Bentley scored twice before the end of the period, including a Jonathan Desbiens goal with 26 seconds left, to take a 2-1 lead.
The Colonials tied it halfway through the second, then took a lead into the third period. It lasted exactly one minute before Luke Santerno tied things up, and that 3-3 score lasted another 1:23 before Kyle Schmidt gave Bentley the lead. The Falcons held on from there, winning 4-3 in a game featuring 66 shots.
It was also the first time all season Bentley rallied from a second period deficit and only the second time Robert Morris failed to win a game it led after two periods.
Game Three poured gasoline into that fire when RMU staked itself to a 2-0 lead in the first. Again the Falcons rallied at the end of the period, scoring on the power play, and Bentley tied the game up in the second with another power play goal at the 10:57 mark.
But Daniel Mantenuto’s goal at 15:18 stood up as Francis Marotte saved 14 third period shots. Exhaustively, it gave Robert Morris a 3-2 victory and the series win after three games where the two teams simply hit each other with everything they had and left nothing in their reserve tanks.
With RIT’s loss, the Colonials are now the best remaining first round seed, so they’ll head east to play Holy Cross.