The last weekend of the regular season always carries a certain amount of tension and chaos.
Matchups fluctuate through a volume of permutations, but the changes are so sudden and severe that single shifts can impact the outcome. Fans and followers became glued to the scoreboard almost as much as what they’re watching, and, historically, the dust settles only after a demolition derby finalizes who is going where.
The last few years created that aura with tightly-packed standings, and teams moved alongside one another like tectonic plates on a faultline. Though that extremism didn’t exist this season, the last weekend wasn’t without its own sense of drama.
Take Robert Morris and Holy Cross.
The Crusaders opened the weekend with a two-point lead over RMU for the final home ice position, setting off a mad-dash to the finish. Mercyhurst scored 40 seconds into the game against the Colonials, but the low-scoring game turned into a seven-goal slugfest in the third period. There were three different lead changes and four different tie scores that sent the game to overtime with a 4-4 result. A power play gifted RMU a golden opportunity in that extra frame, and Alex Tonge scored to give his team a win.
That temporarily tied the Colonials in the standings with the Mountain Time start between Holy Cross and Air Force, a game that also went to overtime after the teams both scored in the second period. Mitch Collett scored there, pushing the Crusaders two points ahead into the last day of the season.
It set up Saturday’s chaotic finish, where Robert Morris had to win and Holy Cross had to lose in order to grant home ice to the Colonials. That home ice spot would hot potato back and forth in the second period, where Air Force scored to tie Holy Cross at 1-1 early. RMU held a 2-1 lead at the time, giving home ice to the Colonials, but Mercyhurst’s power play goal shifted it back to Holy Cross. It wasn’t until Robert Morris scored at the 8:19 mark that the gained the advantage back, but a Crusader goal before the halfway point tied the score and pushed Holy Cross back in front.
It wasn’t until Air Force scored two third-period goals and Robert Morris held onto a 4-3 victory that the Colonials finally pulled in front, creating the first round matchup.
There was a downstream impact to that jostling. Sacred Heart lost to AIC earlier in the afternoon, opening the door for the Falcons to move up and into third place. The impact hit RIT, where the Tigers were in the process of losing to Canisius, 2-1. Instead of potentially leapfrogging into fourth, RIT wound up on the road, but instead of going to Air Force, it now heads to Sacred Heart, while Canisius plays at Niagara in the first round instead of Mercyhurst, where one win in that series would have clinched sixth place for the Lakers.
So while the actual determination for home ice and the top five spots lacked the same drama, the last day of the regular season once again proved itself worthy of Atlantic Hockey’s typical chaos. AIC, Bentley, Air Force, Sacred Heart and RIT all earned first round byes, with the latter two forming a quarterfinal matchup.
That leads us to the first round the playoffs and the following matchups:
No. 11 Canisius at No. 6 Niagara
Canisius Fun Fact: This is Canisius’ first time on the road in the first round since a sweep loss to Connecticut in 2012.
Niagara Fun Fact: As the No. 6 seed, a Niagara series win would guarantee a trip to No. 3 Air Force. This mirrors the only other time the Purple Eagles hosted a three-game, first round series, in 2014, when the team hosted AIC and advanced to play the Falcons on the road.
Playoff History: This is the fourth time that the teams will meet in the nine years since the Purple Eagles joined the conference. Two of those meetings happened in the first round, including Niagara’s first year in the league in 2011 (when the league used a single-elimination, division-based playoff format for the first round).
Head-to-Head This Season: Niagara, 2-0-2. The Purple Eagles swept Canisius in November, including a wild 9-6 game at Dwyer Arena, before splitting two ties two weekends ago.
Stat You Didn’t Know You Needed Until Now: These teams actually finished the year as the league’s hottest two teams after bookending wins around their ties, and both teams victimized RIT in their last game of the year.
Underlying Storyline: The first 40 minutes of each game is going to be huge for these teams. Canisius went 6-1 this year in league play when leading after two periods but just 2-15-2 when tied or trailing. Niagara, meanwhile, went 9-0-2 while leading in that same scenario compared to 2-12-3 when tied or trailing (and 0-9-2 when outright trailing).
No. 10 Army West Point at No. 7 Mercyhurst
Army West Point Fun Fact: Atlantic Hockey’s first 10-team tournament was in 2008. Since then, the Black Knights finished in that spot, making this their first trip to the postseason as a No. 10 seed.
Mercyhurst Fun Fact: This is Mercyhurst’s third trip to the first round since the postseason changed to the “traditional” formats in 2012. Whenever the Lakers failed to secure a first round bye, they somehow managed to play Army at some point in the postseason.
Playoff History: Longtime Atlantic Hockey members, they first met in the 2002 MAAC quarterfinal but didn’t play again until the 2008 semifinals. The next year marked the first three-game series between the teams, but it wasn’t until 2017’s second round that Army West Point won a series against Mercyhurst. Including the 2013 first round, Mercyhurst had been a perfect 6-0 until the Black Knights’ Game 1 win that year.
Head-to-Head This Season: The Black Knights went undefeated against Mercyhurst this season, sweeping the Lakers on the road in October and taking three points at home in February. Three of the four games, though, went to overtime.
Stat You Didn’t Know You Needed Until Now: Mercyhurst has only been eliminated on home ice once since becoming a Division I hockey team – a 2010 quarterfinals sweep by Canisius.
Underlying Storyline: This will be the final meetings between Army head coach Brian Riley and his son, Brendan. Dating back to Brendan Riley’s brother Jack’s Mercyhurst is 8-5-3 against the Black Knights.
No. 9 Holy Cross at No. 8 Robert Morris
Holy Cross Fun Fact: This is the first road series for Holy Cross in the first round since the introduction of the “first round” in 2009. The only other opening round games played on the road were a best-of-three series in the 2008 quarterfinals and a 2000 MAAC quarterfinal, single-elimination game at Mercyhurst.
RMU Fun Fact: The Colonials only have two best-of-three series losses since joining Atlantic Hockey, losing in the quarterfinals in 2012 and 2013. By clinching home ice, they also avoided playing their first AHA first-round games on the road.
Playoff History: This series is the third straight season where the two teams will meet, but it’s the first time in the first round in that sequence. Robert Morris won both the previous meetings, winning in 2017 in Pittsburgh (6-3, 3-2) and last year at Holy Cross (4-1, 5-1).
Head-to-Head This Season: Someone will finally claim the season series between the two teams after they split the first four games of the year.
Stat You Didn’t Know You Needed Until Now: Since the league tournament expanded to four rounds, the only team to ever eliminate Holy Cross in the first round was Niagara in 2011.
Underlying Storyline: How wild will these games be? Holy Cross is plus-11 against AHA teams in the first period but minus-20 in the second and third. Robert Morris, meanwhile, is -10 in the first period but plus-3 across the board against the rest of the league.