Anticipation is building for another photo-finish season in Atlantic Hockey.
While the semifinals and finals have made a move from Rochester to a new home in HarborCenter, who gets there and ultimately hoists the Riley Cup is anyone’s guess.
Last season was the most contested in league history, and this year looks to be another dogfight.
“(Last season) was the most competitive year ever in Atlantic Hockey,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “I think we all feel very, very strongly that this will be the case again this year.”
Putting together the preseason poll was a struggle, according to the coaches.
“I didn’t want to pick anyone last because inevitably they could finish much much higher,” said Rochester Institute of Technology coach Wayne Wilson.
“Four wins separated first and seventh (last season). That could happen again.”
“(The preseason poll) was an impossible task,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “It’s always been difficult, but this was an impossible task. I can’t pick three teams that I think are going to be in the bottom of our league. It used to be that there were some haves and some have nots.
At the end of the 2016-17 season, only a handful of key players moved on. This past season saw the departure of many more of the league’s stars. Eight players with 100 career points graduated compared to just three in 2016-17. 13 of top 35 point scorers are gone compared to only five of top 35 in 2016-17.
But the cupboard is hardly bare.
The league’s biggest star remains Dylan McLaughlin, who earned Canisius a second straight Hobey Baker Award finalist designation with last year’s 48-point season. He leads a star-studded parade of players from a variety of teams, including Alex Tonge (Robert Morris), Erik Brown (RIT), Derek Barach (Mercyhurst), and Brennan Kapcheck (AIC).
“We’re excited to have Dylan (McLaughlin) back along with returners who have played heavy minutes for us,” said Canisius coach Trevor Large. “Obviously for us, having the (Atlantic Hockey) player of the year, a Hobey Baker candidate back on campus, I that’s rare in our league.”
Goaltending remains strong with eight teams returning their starters, including Billy Christopoulos (Air Force), Stefano Durante (American International) Daniel Urbani (Canisius) and Francis Marotte (Robert Morris).
It’s a testament to the talent levels that have risen throughout the AHC. The league’s attention to facilities and scholarships are now producing its best recruiting classes while providing more opportunities to enhance existing talent, especially out east. AIC, Sacred Heart and Bentley all moved into new facilities, and each provide a unique brand that’s becoming attractive to prospective athletes.
“It’s been a pretty big jump in our recruiting, going from a public facility off-campus to a $45 million facility on-campus,” Bentley head coach Ryan Soderquist said. “It’s opened the doors to getting our hands on more players, and it’s helped with recruiting. But I’m more happy daily to give our guys on the team to be able to practice more, receive better treatment and availability to meet with coaches. Those areas are really exciting and came with new facilities.”
For Atlantic Hockey teams, 2018-2019 will provide one of its greatest opportunities to score non-conference wins because of the amount of home games. 30 of the 66 games AHC teams will play this year are at home, a record number exceeding last year’s 24.
For example, Robert Morris will host Bowling Green, Penn State and St. Cloud, Union and Brown in the annual Three Rivers Classic.
“We’re in a very advantageous location with people coming into Pittsburgh,” Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley said. “It’s a world-class city, and we’ve had great support with the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Three Rivers Classic. But we’ve got the ability to play Big Ten teams, which are fairly local, and we open up this year against Bowling Green. We can go east or west, but we can stay in the Midwest and have some good games.
“We’re excited about the schedule this year.”
In all, Atlantic Hockey teams will play eight teams at home ranked in the USCHO preseason poll.
That’s a big step forward for league members, especially for a pair of teams now sharing buildings with American Hockey League tenants. For Sacred Heart, the season begins with three straight games against Hockey East opponents, including two against Northeastern. AIC, meanwhile, will host Quinnipiac and Massachusetts as part of its slate.
“This is the first time in Sacred Heart hockey history that we’re playing half of our nonleague games at home,” head coach CJ Marottolo said. “Playing at Webster Bank Arena has been a big part of that. We have an opportunity against two teams that were in the NCAA Tournament last year. It’s going to create a great challenge for us, but it’s a great opportunity to play those games at home where historically they were on the road.”
Circled on the calendar is a visit by North Dakota to Canisius’ HarborCenter on January 4 and 5.
“HarborCenter becoming a great Mecca for hockey,” said Large. “(North Dakota coming in) is special. Our players know that. We’re looking forward to that buzz around campus, that buzz in the community. Hopefully lots of people will be there wearing blue and gold and not green.”
“It’s a big factor, playing more nonconference games at home,” said Serratore. “I think that will lead to more nonconference success.”
We’ve got questions
Questions for each team on the brink of the 2018-19 season:
– AIC was the league’s most pleasant surprise last year, and coach Eric Lang stresses celebrating small victories in the developmental road. Can the Yellow Jackets continue down that path after being picked to do so?
– Losing Tyler Pham, Conor Andrle and Cole Bruns creates some big voids in an Army West Point roster that utilized tons of experience. Who steps into those roles so Army doesn’t miss a beat in the league’s top tier?
– Last year was the first time since 2010-2011 that Bentley failed to score 100 goals as a team. They responded the next year by beginning a run of its record-breaking offensive era. Can the new recruits combine with virtually every major returning player to kickstart the same?
– Holy Cross hasn’t finished lower than seventh in less than 10 years, so can they avoid any kind of drop-off despite a roster in transition after graduations?
– Can Sacred Heart really be considered a sleeper with a team many consider to be ready for a breakout?
– Can Air Force, which saw a big class move on, three-peat if they stay healthy?
– RIT has never had more than two losing seasons in a row since joining the league. The last time they came off disappointing campaigns, the Tigers rebounded and won the title. Can history repeat?
– Niagara had a great first half, then the bottom fell out. After a major offseason overhaul, where do the Purple Eagles stand?
– Canisius barely lost a step last season after losing Charles Williams to graduation. Can McLaughlin and company keep them near the top again?
– Mercyhurst lost goaltending, a ton of offense and saw all-star defenseman Lancaster transfer to Denver. Can the Lakers still finish near the top?
– Robert Morris lost nine seniors, and is coming off its first losing season in eight years. What’s next for the Colonials?
And the big question: Which team will raise the Riley Cup six months from now?
HEAD COACH: Frank Serratore (26th season at Air Force)
LAST SEASON: 23-15-5, 13-11-4 (tied for third) in Atlantic Hockey). Lost to Minnesota Duluth in the NCAA West Regional finals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Evan Giesler (12-11-23), senior forward Matt Serratore (14-8-22), senior goalie Billy Christopoulos (2.05 GAA, .922 save percentage)
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Erik Baskin (16-12-28) and Tyler Ledford (6-18-24), defenseman Phil Boje (2-15-17).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Kieran Dugan (26 points in 26 games for Shreveport (NAHL), forward Brendan Miller (42 points in 56 games for Corpus Christi (NAHL), defenseman Keegan Mantaro (six points in 40 games for Sioux City (USHL).
2018-19 PREDICTION: Last time out, the Falcons were able to repeat as conference champs and were a goal away from the Frozen Four for the second year in a row. Injuries forced Serratore to use his entire roster and that should pay dividends after the graduation of several key players.
“We want to be the best team in February and March,” said Frank Serratore. “We’ll be young on defense but if we get players to by in, which they will, we’ll be OK.”
Chris picks Air Force to finish second; Dan picks Air Force to finish third.
HEAD COACH: Eric Lang (third season)
LAST SEASON: 15-20-4, 11-13-4 (eighth) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Canisius in the AHC quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Blake Christensen (13-10-23), sophomore defenseman Brennan Kapcheck (7-19-26), junior defenseman Janis Jaks (8-15-23), junior forward Jared Pike (11-6-17), sophomore goaltender Stefano Durante (12-12-2, 2.27 GAA, .911 save percentage)
KEY LOSSES: Andrew Debrincat (1-12-13)
KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Parker Revering (22 points in 56 games for Brookings (NAHL), forward Jan Stefka (25 points in 41 games for P.A.L. and Connecticut (NCDC).
2018-2019 PREDICTION: The Yellow Jackets were college hockey’s most pleasant surprise last year, earning and winning their first home playoff series in Division I program history. Everyone of importance returns, which could make them downright frightening if all players develop.
Chris picks AIC to finish sixth; Dan picks AIC to finish sixth.
ARMY WEST POINT
HEAD COACH: Brian Riley (15th season)
2017-2018 RECORD: 13-16-7, 12-10-6 (tied for third) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Air Force in the AHC quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Michael Wilson (18-12-30), junior forward Dominic Franco (12-18-30), junior defenseman Alex Wilkinson (6-15-21), senior defenseman Dalton MacAfee (2-19-21)
KEY LOSSES: Tyler Pham (8-16-24), Conor Andrle (8-12-20), Blake Box (139 career games), Nick DeCenzo (136 career games), Mike Preston (135 career games), Cole Bruns (12-11-3, 2.31 GAA, .924 save percentage).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Colin Bilek (50 points in 57 games for the Northeast Generals (NAHL).
2018-2019 PREDICTION: Army’s lost players in key positions throughout its lineup, but there’s enough talent to take the next step. Goaltending is arguably the biggest question mark with only one player with any experience (Jared Dempsey started nine games last year), but the defense should be strong enough to compensate.
Chris picks Army West Point to finish fifth; Dan picks Army West Point to finish fifth.
HEAD COACH: Ryan Soderquist (17th season)
2017-2018 RECORD: 13-18-6, 9-14-5 (tied for ninth) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the AHC tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Luke Santerno (12-18-30), senior forward Drew Callin (6-20-26), junior forward Jonathan Desbiens (12-9-21), senior defenseman Tanner Jago (6-22-28)
KEY LOSSES: Kyle Schmidt (16-15-31), Chris Buchanan (132 career games), Jayson Argue (3-6-4, 2.88 GAA, .907 save percentage)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Jakov Novak (73 points in 56 games for Janesville (NAHL), forward Will Shlagenhauf (35 points in 48 games for Topeka (NAHL) and Muskegon (USHL), goalie Fraser Kirk (1.86 GAA and .923 save percentage for Newmarket (OJHL).
2018-2019 PREDICTION: The Falcons brought in loads of talent, including Novak, Bentley’s first draft pick who became Atlantic Hockey’s only selection in this year’s NHL Draft. It should combine with leadership to make them better, and this year could be the start of a Bentley climb reminiscent of the decade’s early years.
Chris picks Bentley to finish seventh; Dan picks Bentley to finish ninth.
HEAD COACH: Trevor Large (second season)
LAST SEASON: 19-17-2, 17-11-0 (second) in the AHC. Lost to Air Force in the AHC semifinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Dylan McLaughlin (17-31-48), junior forward Nick Hutchison (16-15-21), senior defenseman Cameron Heath (7-14-21), junior goaltender Daniel Urbani (2.74 GAA, .918 save percentage).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Ryan Schmelzer (13-17-30), defenseman Jack Stander (3-7-10).
KEY ADDITIONS:Forward Mitchell Martin (84 points in 74 games for Wellington (OJHL), forward Lee Lapid (65 points in 68 games for Toronto (OJHL), forward J.D. Pogue (47 points in 48 games for Cornwall (OJHL).
2018-19 PREDICTION: Canisius has a lot going for it, including last year’s AHC player of the year, Dylan McLaughlin.
“I feel very confident that we will have a great team this year,” said Large. “With what we have up front, Daniel Urbani in net and four senior defensemen, I like our depth.”
Chris picks Canisius to finish first; Dan picks Canisius to finish first.
HEAD COACH: David Berard (fifth season)
2017-2018 RECORD: 13-16-7, 12-10-6 (tied for third) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Robert Morris in the AHC quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Michael Laffin (13-15-28), senior forward Peter Crinella (6-12-18), senior defenseman Spencer Trapp (3-13-16), senior defenseman Johnny Coughlin (3-11-14).
KEY LOSSES: Scott Pooley (18-16-34), TJ Moore (8-22-30), Danny Lopez (13-11-24), Ryan Ferrill (6-10-16), Paul Berrafato (13-16-7, 2.57 GAA, .919 save percentage).
KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Bryce Dolan (31 points in 37 games for Kimball Union (USHS-Prep), forward Ryan Leibold (12 points in 60 games for Sioux City (USHL), forward Erkka Vanska (55 points in 60 games for Fairbanks (NAHL), forward Matt Barry (17 goals, 54 points for Youngstown (USHL) and forward Will Conley (48 goals, 80 points for Fort McMurray (AJHL).
2018-2019 PREDICTION: The Crusaders lost a third of their offensive output last year with the graduations of Pooley, Moore and Lopez and a goaltender with 110 career starts. No team proves its resilience better, but with a tight-packed AHC, a one or two game swing could mean five slots in the standings. Consider them the league’s wild card this year.
Chris picks Holy Cross to finish ninth; Dan picks Holy Cross to finish 10th.
HEAD COACH: Rick Gotkin (31st season)
LAST SEASON: 21-12-4, 16-8-4 (first) in the AHC. Lost to Robert Morris in the AHC semifinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Derek Barach (15-23-38), junior defenseman Joseph Duszak (9-22-31), senior forward Taylor Best (11-14-25).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Jack Riley (16-15-31), goalie Brandon Wildung (2.81 GAA, .918 save percentage), defenseman Lester Lancaster (6-20-26).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Dalton Hunter (17 points in 56 games for Debuque (USHL); defenseman Josh McDougall (94 points in 71 games for Nipawin (SJHL), goalie Garrett Metcalf (2.59 GAA and .913 save percentage for UMass Lowell in 2016-17)
2018-19 PREDICTION: Mercyhurst proved that in this league, you can throw expectations out the window. The Lakers were picked to finish eighth/seventh in the coaches/media pre-season poll, but ended up regular-season champions.
“We’re picked to finish fourth in a very competitive league,” said Gotkin. “You never know. Our goal is to win every night and improve and get better.”
Chris picks Mercyhurst to finish fourth; Dan picks Mercyhurst to finish fourth.
HEAD COACH: Jason Lammers (second season)
LAST SEASON: 11-22-3, 10-15-3 (tied for ninth) in the AHC. Lost to American International in the AHC first round.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior defenseman Noah Delmas (4-25-29), senior forward Tanner Lomsnes (13-7-20), senior forward Nick Farmer (8-6-14).
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Derian Plouffe (17-18-35) and Stanislav Dzakhov (5-3-8).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Ludwig Stenlund (41 points in 60 games for Madison (USHL), forward Ryan Cox (75 points in 65 games for Sherwood Park (AJHL), defenseman Jon Hill (53 points in 62 games for Whitby (CCHL)
2018-19 PREDICTION: Niagara lost a total of 14 players to graduation and cuts, and has 11 freshman and two transfers looking to make an impact. The Purple Eagles started strong and then faded last season, and we expect the reverse this year with so many new faces.
“We need to handle the pressure that comes with success,” said Lammers. “I believe we took it for granted last year, and thought we could just show up and be good after Christmas and obviously, we learned our lesson.”
Chris picks Niagara to finish 11th; Dan picks Niagara to finish 11th.
ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
HEAD COACH: Wayne Wilson (20th season)
LAST SEASON: 15-20-2, 13-14-1 (tied for sixth) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Sacred Heart in the first round of the AHC tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Erik Brown (29-13-42), senior forward Gabe Valenzuela (11-24-35), junior defenseman Adam Brubacher (9-15-24).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Myles Powell (13-26-39), defensemen Chase Norrish (3-17-20) and Brady Norrish (injured last season).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Will Calverley (46 points in 55 games for Chilliwack (BCHL), forward Andrew Petrucci (100 points in 54 games for Toronto (OJHL), defenseman Zach Slalom (60 points in 57 games for Navan and Ottawa (CCHL).
2018-19 PREDICTION: “Up front and on defense, we’re in good shape,” said Wilson. “But we’re still unproven in goal, and that’s something we’ll have to decipher as the year goes on.”
The Tigers had the worst goaltending in the league last season (.872 save percentage). If RIT fixes that, it will contend for a bye. If not, it could be another long season.
Chris picks RIT to finish eighth; Dan picks RIT to finish seventh.
HEAD COACH : Derek Schooley (15th season)
LAST SEASON: 18-20-3, 12-13-3 (tied for sixth) in the AHC. Lost to Air Force in the AHC championship game.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Alex Tonge (17-27-44), junior forward Luke Lynch (17-20-37), junior goalie Francis Marotte (2.56 GAA, .917 save percentage)
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Brady Ferguson (18-31-49), Timmy Moore (13-23-36) and Spencer Dorowitcz (8-11-19).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Nick Lalonde (83 points in 65 games for Ottawa (CCHL), forward Kip Hoffman (62 points in 66 games for Janesville (NAHL), forward Grant Hebert (64 points in 74 games for Fargo (USHL).
2018-19 PREDICTION: After five straight trips to Rochester and three straight championship game appearances, and the loss of some key players, a step back may be in store for the Colonials. Schooley doesn’t think so.
“I believe that we have a very good group, a different group,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have the 60-point guy, but a lot of guys that can bring you big numbers.”
Chris picks Robert Morris to finish third; Dan picks Robert Morris to finish second.
HEAD COACH: CJ Marottolo (10th season)
2017-2018 RECORD: 13-22-4, 9-15-4 (11th) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Mercyhurst in the AHC quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Vito Bavaro (16-16-32), sophomore forward Marc Johnstone (13-17-30), junior forward Austin McIlmurray (14-11-25), junior defenseman Ruslan Rakhmatov (3-16-19)
KEY LOSSES: None
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Nick Boyagian (43 points in 52 games for New Jersey (NAHL), goalie Drennan Atherton (2.61 GAA, .923 save percentage for the Northern Cyclones (NCDC).
2018-2019 PREDICTION: Sacred Heart turned into a certified wagon last year when it went won six of nine games in the second half of the season and almost earned postseason home ice. The Pioneers now return everybody, which with the right additions and development should make them a not-so-sleeper pick to rise up in the standings.
Chris picks Sacred Heart to finish 10th; Dan picks Sacred Heart to finish eighth.