Every coach preaches the importance of getting hot at the right time, and how championships are won by playing your best hockey in February and March.
Right now, American International, Bentley and Sacred Heart, squads that finished near the basement of the Atlantic Hockey standings last season, are currently three of the hottest teams in college hockey, riding a wave that has flipped the standings.
Last weekend, first-place Yellow Jackets swept Army West Point for their fourth and fifth consecutive victories, clinching a first-round bye in the Atlantic Hockey tournament for the first time in school history.
It was only a year ago that Eric Lang’s team hosted the school’s first ever AHA playoff series, albeit a first round matchup that AIC earned by finishing eighth.
This season, American International has blown way, way past what was seen as a major accomplishment just a year ago. With four regular season games left to play (a non-conference series with No. 12 Arizona State and a pair of league games with Sacred Heart to close things out), the Yellow Jackets have set the following program records:
– Wins (17)
– Longest winning streak (currently five games)
– Conference points (35)
– Goals scored (101)
– Individual points: Junior Forward Blake Christensen (37)
– Shutouts in a season: Junior goaltender Zackarias Skog (4)
This week, AIC came up a few votes short of being ranked for the first time in the USCHO.com weekly poll.
“The first thing that’s happened to us in starting to feel like we’re turning the corner is a stong belief, a belief that we’re going to win every single time that we take the ice,” Lang, in his third year at American International, told USCHO.com.
“We went from three years ago hoping that we’re going to win some hockey games, and then in year three to expecting to win hockey games.”
Sacred Heart has also won five straight games, including last weekend’s sweep of Niagara. The Pioneers have climbed into a tie with Mercyhurst for fifth place and the final first-round bye.
Eclipsing the successes of Sacred Heart and American International is Bentley, which is riding the longest unbeaten streak in the nation (9-0-2 with seven consecutive wins including a sweep of Canisius last weekend). The Falcons haven’t lost since dropping a 4-3 decision to New Hampshire back on Dec. 30th.
As a result, Bentley has moved from eighth place to sole possession of second in the standings. The Falcons haven’t finished as high as second since the 2013-14 season.
At the start of the season, and even as recently as December, it looked like the Atlantic Hockey standings would be as bunched up as they had been the previous season, when only 14 points separated first and last and just six points were the difference between first and fifth.
Thanks to the recent runs by Bentley, AIC and Sacred Heart, as well as slumps so far in 2019 by Robert Morris (1-9), Army (0-6-3), Canisius (3-8-1) and Niagara (2-6-2), greater separation has occurred in the standings compared to last season.
Twenty-one points currently lie between first-place AIC and last-place Canisius, while the gap from first to fifth is 11 points.
But with most teams having five or six league games left, there’s plenty left to decide. Every team except Canisius still has a shot at a first-round bye, and the vast majority of teams can finish between either first and 10th or second and 11th.
American International has the least number of conference games left: just two at home against Sacred Heart on Feb. 28 and March 2. Until then, Lang’s team will sit atop its perch in the standings, while the rest of the league tries to use games in hand to catch up.
“It’s something a little unique,” said Lang. “I guess we’d rather be (seven) points up and make the most of the games left. We’re going to try and take care of our business.”