Atlantic Hockey isn’t known for its ability to stand pat.
Tectonic shifts in membership and realignment forced it to remain progressive and innovative in its approach to college hockey, and it’s a reason why the league remains on solid footing as it approaches its third decade.
Realignment and expansion rumors and talks will always swirl, but the AHA is now in its most stable stretch ever. The 11-team league, once considered the cost containment home for cast-offs and misfits, is now a thriving conference with more parity than any other college hockey conference.
Last year, American International became the first regular season champion to claim the tournament trophy in eight years, then knocked off St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It marked the third consecutive year for the league to win a national stage game, the fourth in the last five seasons.
“The league has grown as far as talent,” Army West Point coach Brian Riley said. “Just looking at the other teams, it’s a gauntlet within the league. We’re looking at (this season) one game at a time and hopefully we’re playing our best hockey down the stretch and into the playoffs.”
It’s one of the things we love about sports. On any given night, underdogs can rise up and defy oddsmakers and pundits by beating a favored opponent. There’s nothing quite like the story of a team that moves from the outhouse to the penthouse.
Then there’s chaos. What’s happened in Atlantic Hockey the past two seasons has moved beyond mere uncertainty to downright disruption.
Last season’s results and this season’s preseason coaches poll bear that out:
– Niagara, picked to finish last in the 2018-19 preseason poll, was a goal away from winning the AHA playoff title. The Purple Eagles are picked to finish second this season.
– Canisius was picked to finish second last season, but ended up in last place, and is picked to do so again this season.
– Bentley was predicted to finish ninth last season, but ended up second. The Falcons are picked to finish third in 2019-20. Tied with Bentley in this season’s coaches poll is Sacred Heart, which was picked to finish second from the bottom of the standings in 2018-19 but ended up third from the top.
– And of course American International, a perennial cellar dweller, became the first time in seven years to win both the AHA regular season and playoff titles, shattering just about every school record in the process. And, for good measure, the Yellow Jackets knocked off top seed St. Cloud in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Atlantic Hockey teams are now 4-1 in the first round over the past five seasons, taking down the overall top seed in the tournament three times.
Is that chaos? Maybe it’s a sign that the top of Atlantic Hockey can beat anyone. It’s almost…predictable.
The innovation and ability to turn over the league year over year isn’t limited to just teams and on-ice product. This offseason, Atlantic Hockey voted to become the first eastern-based league to introduce a shootout for regular season conference games. The format mirrors the western leagues, all of which award three points in regular season games.
A five-minute, five-on-five overtime will follow the standard 60-minute game, at which point a winner will earn all three points. If a game is tied after the 5-on-5 overtime, the game is officially declared a draw for NCAA purposes, awarding one point to each team. The teams will then play a 3-on-3 overtime to determine which side receives a second point, with a shootout following if there’s still no winner.
“I think everyone’s a little nervous,” Holy Cross coach David Berard said. “We have some guys and coaches that are more traditionalist that were against it. I used to be on that side. (But) I saw my son’s team play in an international tournament, and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. It really swayed my vote when we voted on it. I know our guys are excited because they see it on television with the NHL. We’re the only eastern league doing it, so it maybe gives us a leg up on the other leagues out east.”
What’s been lost, what remains, and what’s new
Youth will be served throughout the league this season, with several teams bringing in large freshmen classes. Air Force will have a school-record 12 newcomers on its roster, while Canisius (11) and Mercyhurst (11) also have a bevy of rookies.
Six of top ten scorers in Atlantic Hockey have moved on, including Mercyhurst’s Joe Duszak, who led the league in scoring last season and was a Hobey Baker finalist. Duszak would have been a senior this season, but instead opted to sign a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Things are more stable in net, which just three starting goaltenders moving on, including first-team all star Billy Christopoulos from Air Force and Robert Morris’ Francis Marotte, who transferred to Clarkson after three seasons at RMU.
HEAD COACH: Frank Serratore (23rd season at Air Force)
LAST SEASON: 16-15-5, 14-10-4 (third) in the AHC. Lost to Niagara in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Kieran Durgan (12-6-18), senior forward Brady Tomlak (8-10-18), junior defenseman Zack Mirageas (1-16-17).
KEY LOSSES: Goaltender Billy Christopoulos (2.24 GAA .914 save percentage), forward Kyle Haak (87 career points), defenseman Matt Koch (66 career points).
KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Brandon Koch (38 points for Wenatchee (BCHL)), forward Blake Bride (34 points for Sioux Falls (USHL)), forward Luke Manning (23 points for Des Moines (USHL).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Air Force coach Frank Serratore is philosophical about his Falcons getting picked sixth by the league’s coaches. It’s lower than his team is used to. But Air Force is coming off a quarterfinal loss to Niagara in last year’s Atlantic Hockey tournament, and will be without key pieces of a team that went to the NCAA tournament in 2017 and 2018.
“Normally, sixth is something I wouldn’t be happy about,” Serratore said. “But this year, six is an inflated ranking if you look at what we have coming back.”
The key losses include two-year starter Billy Christopoulos, who led the league in goals against (2.24) and save percentage (.914) last season.
The seven departed seniors accounted for 37 of the Falcons’ 90 goals last season; those 90 were the least scored by any team in the conference.
“We’ve got 12 freshmen,” said Serratore. “Our largest class ever. We’re going to be very green. But we have competitive depth. Guys will need to step into new roles.”
Serratore says it’s going to be harder than ever to keep pace.
“We’ve got a lot to prove,” he said. “Our league is on a major uptick. Top to bottom, it’s never been better.”
Chris’ Prediction: Sixth
Dan’s Prediction: Eighth
American International College
HEAD COACH: Eric Lang (fourth season)
LAST SEASON: 23-17-1, 18-9-1 (first) in the AHA. Defeated Niagara in the Atlantic Hockey championship. Lost to Denver in the West Regional final in the NCAA tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Blake Christensen (47 points in 41 games), Kyle Stephan (27 points in 37 games), and Martin Mellberg (26 points in 41 games), junior forward Tobias Fladeby (26 points in 40 games), senior defenseman Patrick Demel (17 points in 41 games), and junior defenseman Brennan Kapcheck (25 points in 37 games)
KEY LOSSES: Forward Shawn McBride (23 points in 41 games) and defenseman Ryan Polin (9 points in 36 games)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Justin Wilson (40 points in 31 games with Salmon Arm (BCHL)), Jake Stella (38 points in 60 games with Corpus Christi (NAHL)) and Austin Albrecht (11 points in 28 games with UMass), and defenseman Brett Callahan (38 points in 50 games with Jersey (NCDC)).
2019-2020 PREDICTION: For the first time in program history, the Yellow Jackets are Atlantic Hockey’s hunted team. Last year was memorable for all the right reasons, and the team was unquestionably the best AIC team ever, scoring 129 goals and held Atlantic Hockey opponents to only 25 shots per game.
When a team returns a core along with a supporting cast from that kind of squad, there’s no question how people see it: a preseason No. 1 team. It’s why AIC could very well repeat as either Atlantic Hockey’s regular-season champion or tournament champion – or both.
“Success is in the culture that we’ve built here,” Lang said. “We can’t get overly concerned with what we’ve accomplished. We’ve been cautious in speaking to what we’ve accomplished last year. If you get too far ahead of yourself, you’ll be disappointed in the outcome.”
The only Achilles’ heel for the Yellow Jackets came in net, where the team held a collective .889 save percentage. Even then, Zackarias Skog stopped 33 shots against St. Cloud State in the West Regional, and the hallmark of the team came in its ability to defensively prevent pucks on net.
Atlantic Hockey champions seldom repeat, so it’s a tenuous position at best. But we all learned how resilient this team was during its magical run. Even if it falls down the standings, the Yellow Jackets will be favored to do postseason damage.
Chris’ Prediction: First
Dan’s Prediction: Third
Army West Point
HEAD COACH: Brian Riley (16th year)
LAST SEASON: 12-20-7, 8-13-7 (10th) in the AHA. Lost to AIC in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Zach Evancho (29 points in 29 games), Dominic Franco (22 points in 22 games) and Brendan Soucie (20 points in 20 games), and senior defenseman Alex Wilkinson (26 points in 34 games)
KEY LOSSES: Forward Trevor Fidler (13 games in 37 games) and defenseman Dalton MacAfee (35 points in 39 games)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Johnny Keranen (46 points in 51 games for Minnesota (NAHL)), defenseman Thomas Farrell (10 points in 58 games for Youngstown (USHL)), and goalie Justin Evenson (2.34 GAA and 9.22 save percentage in 22 games for Amarillo (NAHL)).
2019-2020 PREDICTION: The Black Knights are one of the most consistently-fast starting teams in Atlantic Hockey, winning six games before Thanksgiving in each of the last three years. Last year became the first year the team couldn’t sustain it, and Army finished 10th after going more than two months without an official NCAA victory (the win over Canada’s Royal Military College notwithstanding).
Army tends to be the same kind of team year-in and year-out, the result of its military academy reputation. The players are always well conditioned and play tough, physical, disciplined hockey. It turns over players but still returns enough offense to avoid a dip in production; last year was the fourth consecutive year scoring between 88 and 100 goals.
Defensively, though, it still needs to solve a goaltending issue. Trevin Kozlowski and Matt Penta both saw time, but the unit posted a sub-.900 save percentage while allowing just under three goals per game. The addition of Justin Evenson adds a wild card to the mix, and if anyone settles the position early, the Black Knights all of a sudden become one of the league’s most complete teams.
“This year’s team is going to rely on its senior class,” Riley said. “We have a talented group of seniors that played a lot of minutes. Our question mark will be goaltending. If you’re going to be good, you need good goaltending.”
Chris’ Prediction: Seventh
Dan’s Prediction: Tenth
HEAD COACH: Ryan Soderquist (18th year)
LAST SEASON: 17-15-5, 15-9-4 (second) in AHA. Lost to Robert Morris in Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Jonathan Desbiens (31 points in 35 games) and Ryner Gorowsky (20 points in 20 games), junior forwards Luke Santerno (36 points in 37 games) and Brendan Hamblet (21 points in 31 games), and goalie Aidan Pelino (2.54 GAA and .906 save percentage in 36 games)
KEY LOSSES: Forward Drew Callin (35 points in 37 games) and defensemen Tanner Jago (28 points in 37 games) and Alexey Solovyev (13 points in 37 games)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Matt Gosiewski (51 points in 50 games with Wenatchee (BCHL)) and Joe Winklemann (30 points in 21 games with Odessa (NAHL)), and defenseman Hunter Toale (34 points in 57 games with Johnstown (NAHL)).
2019-2020 PREDICTION: Everyone always seems to be waiting on Bentley’s big postseason run, and it almost came last season. The preseason No. 10 team in last year’s coaches poll ripped off a 12-game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season that included eight consecutive wins, then finished the year in second place.
Then it ran into Robert Morris and lost an instant classic postseason series in an overtime third game.
The good news for the Falcons? They return over 75 percent of their offensive productivity. Two of its defensemen graduated, but it brought back four blue line skaters and arguably the league’s most experienced and best big game goalie.
“Our returning group has a really strong culture, and we have a good group of seniors with a great work ethic,” Soderquist said. “We’re focused (on opening weekend) and looking one weekend at a time or one game at a time.”
It means Bentley is poised, with its returning structure, to jump out of the gate faster than any other team. Three of its first four games are in conference, and the Falcons play nine Atlantic Hockey games before Thanksgiving.
Of those early season games, five of the first seven and 10 of the first 13 are at home. In the second half, a similar situation will unfold when Bentley plays nine games at home after students return to campus.
It’s a scary possibility because, with a fast start, the year could break in favor of the Falcons. If this team can fire on all cylinders from the start, the Atlantic Hockey regular season race might be over before it ever gets started.
Chris’ Prediction: Third
Dan’s Prediction: Second
HEAD COACH: Trevor Large (third season)
LAST SEASON: 12-20-5, 8-16-4 (11th) in the AHA. Lost to Niagara in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Nick Hutchison (13-13-26) and Matt Hoover (11-10-21), sophomore goalie Matt Ladd (3.23 GAA, .905 save percentage).
KEY LOSSES: Forward Dylan McLaughlin (147 career points), defensemen Jimmy Mazza (24 points last season).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Simon Gravel (67 points for Brooks (AJHL)) and Keaton Mastrodonato (52 points for Alberni Valley (BCHL)), goaltender Jacob Barczewski (2.56 GAA and .904 for Tri-City (USHL).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Like several teams in Atlantic Hockey, Canisius will be young. Eleven freshmen are on the Golden Griffins’ roster, looking to help fill the void left by 2017-18 AHA Player of the Year Dylan McLaughlin and top defensemen Jimmy Mazza and Cameron Heath.
Senior forwards Nick Hutchison (13-13-26) and Matt Hoover (11-10-21) are expected to play big roles up front, but the Canisius defense may be tested as four senior blue liners have moved in.
Golden Griffins coach Trevor Large has a wealth of options on net. Coming back are senior Blake Weyrick (3.16 GAA, .896 save percentage) and sophomore Matt Ladd (3.22 GAA, .905 save percentage) who joined the team at Christmas last season and was the starter down the stretch.
Also available is junior Daniel Urbani, who was the main starter in 2017-18 but missed all of last season with an injury.
“We’re looking to rebound from a down year,” said Large. “That starts with being healthy, which was an issue for us last year. I think we’re better off now for what we went through.”
The Golden Griffins open their season at North Dakota. Canisius shocked the Fighting Hawks at HarborCenter last season, sweeping them and essentially ruining UND’s chances for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on them (this time),” said Large. “We’re mentally prepared.”
Chris’ Prediction: 11th
Dan’s Prediction: 11th
HEAD COACH: David Berard (sixth season)
LAST SEASON: 10-21-5, 10-14-4 (tied for eighth) in AHA. Lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Neil Robinson (16 points in 16 games) and Jack Surowiec (9 points in 30 games with an even plus/minus), sophomore forward Anthony Vincent (21 points in 35 games), and senior defenseman Dalton Skelly (81 career games).
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Mitch Collett (22 points in 35 games) and Michael Laffin (88 points in 143 career games), and defensemen Johnny Coughlin (21 points in 36 games, 143 career games) and Spencer Trapp (19 points in 36 games, 139 career games)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Grayson Constable (54 points in 52 games with Bonnyville (AJHL)) and Alex Peterson (65 points in 59 games with Amarillo (NAHL)), defensemen Nick Hale (20 points in 39 games with Brooks (AJHL)) and Mike Higgins (33 points in 58 games with Northeast (NAHL)), and goalie Matt Radomsky (2.06 GAA and .929 save percentage in 40 games with Steinbach (MJHL)).
2019-2020 PREDICTION: Holy Cross became one of Atlantic Hockey’s hottest teams in the second half of last season when it made a run at home ice. The Crusaders nearly succeeded and tied Robert Morris for eighth but finished ninth – on the road – due to league tiebreakers.
“I’m optimistic about the way we played in the second half,” Berard said. “We developed consistency to our preparation and mindset. We learned how to win, and we gained confidence from that. I really like the way we played in the last three months of the year, and we’re looking to build off the start for that.
The offense fell below 90 goals in a season exactly once since the start of the decade, and last year marked the first time the regular starting goalie had a save percentage under .900. There’s an enduring legacy in that locker room, though, which is why nobody should be surprised if the team can continue to balance its checkbook.
“I like our work ethic,” Berard said. “Our leadership could be the best that I’ve had in my six years here.”
Holy Cross is always as recession-proof as it gets in Atlantic Hockey. If the team starts the year pistol hot, the second half is favorable for a hearty finish. The trajectory is unquestionably there.
Chris’ Prediction: 10th
Dan’s Prediction: Seventh
HEAD COACH: Rick Gotkin (32nd season)
LAST SEASON: 13-20-5, 11-13-4 (seventh) in AHA. Lost to Army in the first round of the AHA tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Dalton Hunter (11-13-24) and Steven Ipri (8-15-23), senior goaltenders Garrett Metcalf (3.27 GAA, .905 save percentage) and Colin DeAugustine (4.24 GAA, .891 save percentage).
KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Joe Duszak (99 career points in three seasons), forwards Derek Barach (144 career points) and Josh Lammon (30 points last season).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Khristian Acosta (24 points for Tri-City (USHL)), forward Jonathan Bender (59 points for Aberdeen (NAHL)), defensemen Joseph Maziarz (54 points for North York (OJHL)) and Cade Townend (38 points for Carleton Place (CCHL)).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Mercyhurst suffered a bit of a letdown last time out after capturing the Atlantic Hockey regular season title in 2017-18. Last season’s 13 wins were the lowest for the Lakers since 2006-07. That was especially puzzling because Mercyurst returned several key components of their title team.
Now coach Rick Gotkin, in his 32nd year behind the Laker bench, has to contend with losing his top four scorers from last season, including 2019 AHA Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist Joe Duszak, who left after his junior campaign to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Will it see a rebuild or rebound? Probably a bit of both.
The Laker’s roster features 11 rookies, including eight freshman forwards.
“It’s a young group,” said Gotkin. “But we have high hopes for them.”
One area with loads of experience is in net, featuring the trio of junior Stefano Cantali (21 games last season) senior Colin DeAugustine (34 career starts) and red shirt senior Garrett Metcalf, who saw action in 15 games last season after transferring in from UMass Lowell. He was selected by the Anaheim Ducks in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL draft.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” said Gotkin. “They’re all capable of being the guy.”
Chris’ Prediction: Ninth
Dan’s Prediction: Ninth
HEAD COACH: Jason Lammers (third season)
LAST SEASON: 17-19-5, 11-12-5 (sixth) in the AHA. Lost to American International in the AHA championship game.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Ludwig Stenlund (23-19-42), senior defenseman Noah Delmas (15-25-40), junior goaltender Brian Wilson (2.76 GAA, .910 save percentage).
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Johnny Curran (20 points last season) and Nick Farmer (10 points last season).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Jacob Kendall (50 points for Camrose (AJHL)) and Jason Pineo (41 points for Toronto and Oakville (OJHL)), goaltender Chad Veltri (2.54 GAA and .921 save percentage for Youngstown (USHL)).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Niagara won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season.
After a few years of languishing near the bottom of the Atlantic Hockey standings and being picked last in the 2018-19 preseason coaches poll, Jason Lammers’ team came within a goal of winning the AHA playoff title and advancing to the NCAA tournament last season.
The perception certainly has changed, but what’s changed internally?
“We’re not concerned what the outside people think,” said Lammers. “Just like we weren’t last year. For us, it’s what we have set for our vision and what we’ve set for our mission.”
That mission is to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
Forward Ludwig Stenlund was the breakout star of the last last season, his freshman campaign. The Swede led the Purple Eagles in scoring with 23 goals and 19 assists on the way to winning AHA Rookie of The Year honors.
Also back are junior defenseman Noah Delmas (15-25-40) and junior goaltender Brian Wilson (2.76 GAA, .910 save percentage).
Lammers is excited about his non-conference schedule, which will see the Purple Eagles face off against Denver, Minnesota and Penn State.
“Our goal is to be regionally dominant and nationally prominent,” he said.
Chris’ Prediction: Second
Dan’s Prediction: First
Rochester Institute of Technology
HEAD COACH: Wayne Wilson (21st season)
LAST SEASON: 17-17-4, 13-11-4 (fifth) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Niagara in the semifinals of the AHA tournament.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior defenseman Adam Brubacher (7-24-31), junior forward Jake Hamacher (14-16-30), junior goalie Logan Drackett (2.56 GAA, .911 save percentage).
KEY LOSSES: Forwards Erik Brown (115 career points), Gabe Valenzuela (104 career points) and Abbott Girduckis (93 career points)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Caleb Moretz (51 points for Flin Flon (SJHL)), Thomas Maia (58 points for Oakville (OJHL)), and defenseman Ryan Nicholson (34 points for Oakville (OJHL)).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Last year at this time, goaltending was the big unknown for the Tigers, who had the lowest save percentage in Division I in 2017-18.
Sophomore Logan Drackett won the starting job and went on to post a .911 save percentage, second in the league.
Drackett helped the Tigers to bounce back and make it to the AHA tournament semifinals, where they were knocked out by Niagara in overtime.
This season, the biggest holes to fill are up front. RIT’s top line of Erik Brown, Gabe Valenzuela and Abbott Girduckis are gone, taking 312 career points with them.
RIT coach Wayne Wilson isn’t worried. “Points are easier to replace (than defense and goaltending),” he said. “Every year, every team loses good players. It’s a next man up philosophy.
“You look at us in the playoffs (last season) and guys like (junior) Jake Hamacher, (senior) Shawn Cameron and (sophomore) Will Calverly really came on.”
Wilson will look to a veteran defensive corps and Drackett to build on last season, when the Tigers shaved almost a full goal off their team GAA compared to the previous season.
“I like those groups that are coming back,” he said. “Our strength will be our four senior defensemen and our goaltending.”
Chris’s Prediction: Fifth
Dan’s Prediction: Fifth
HEAD COACH: Derek Schooley (16th season)
LAST SEASON: 16-22-2, 11-15-2 (tied for eighth) in the AHA. Lost to American International in the AHA semifinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Luke Lynch (10-21-31) and Daniel Mantenuto (8-15-23), junior forward Nick Prkusic (7-16-23),
KEY LOSSES: Forward Alex Tonge (138 career points), defenseman Eric Israel (85 career points), goaltender Francis Marotte (50 wins in three seasons).
KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Darcy Walsh (64 points for Ottawa (CCHL)), forward Cameron Hebert (78 points for Johnstown (NAHL)), defenseman Bradley Stonnell (23 points for Drumheller (AJHL).
2019-20 PREDICTION: Last season could be considered a setback for the Colonials. RMU’s 16 wins were its lowest since joining the league in 2010.
But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that counts, and Derek Schooley’s squad found a way to return to The Atlantic Hockey Tournament semifinals for the sixth consecutive season, tying the league record set by Air Force from 2006-07 to 2011-12.
Schooley says he needs his team to play with that mindset throughout the season.
“We found a way (to get back to the semifinals), but it’s not sustainable,” he said. “We flip a switch but that’s not how you want to play. That lightbulb’s going to burn out.”
Look for senior Luke Lynch to add to his 88 career points and three senior defensemen (Alex Robert, Sean Giles and Nick Jenny) to pick up the slack for the departed Eric Israel.
The main question for Robert Morris is in net. Three-year starter Francis Marotte transferred to Clarkson in the offseason.
“We’ve got great competition in goal,” said Schooley of senior Reid Copper, junior Dyllan Lubbesmeyer and sophomore Reid Cooper.
“We’re still a very young team with 17 underclassmen, but we’re hungry, determined and ready to go.”
Chris’ Prediction: Eighth
Dan’s Prediction: Eighth
HEAD COACH: CJ Marottolo (11th year)
LAST SEASON: 16-17-4, 14-11-3 (fourth) in AHA. Lost to RIT in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Jason Cotton (23 points in 37 games), junior forward Marc Johnstone (22 points in 37 games, 52 points in 76 career games), sophomore forward: Austin Magera (14-13-27 in 36 games), senior defensemen Mike Lee (86 career games) and Ruslan Rakhmatov (98 career games), and sophomore goalie Josh Benson (13-7-2 record, 2.54 GAA in 24 games)
KEY LOSSES: Defensemen Liam Clare (139 career games) and Mike Crocock (130 career games) and goalie Brett Magnus (career .904 save percentage with five shutouts)
KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Tim Clifton (plus-11 in 32 games with Shreveport (NAHL)), Derek Contessa (20 points in 62 games with Dubuque (USHL)), Kevin Lombardi (14 points in 58 games with Sioux City (USHL)) and Braeden Tuck (43 points in 57 games with Trail (BCHL)), defensemen Patrick Dawson (12 points in 46 games with Odessa (NAHL)), Daniel Petrick (6 points in 62 games with Madison (USHL)) and Jeppe Urup (plus-21 rating in 23 games with Youngstown (USHL)), and goalie Luke Lush (23 wins for Camrose and Drayton Valley (AJHL)).
2019-2020 PREDICTION: The Pioneers very quietly comprised one of the hottest second halves in college hockey, winning all but four games after Jan. 15 to finish the season in fourth place. It resulted in their first home quarterfinal series since 2010, when Atlantic Hockey’s playoff format was entirely different, and helped signal the arrival of a new era among the league’s eastern teams.
Maintaining that momentum is more than possible given the depth of returning talent, and the addition of a bumper crop of freshmen will more than help the situation. Coach Marottolo specifically singled out the class as a collective unit and pointed to its character, size, speed and skill. It should give the team more balance, and if they all provide meaningful contributions, SHU will remain at or near the league’s top slots.
“The reality (of the end of last year) was that we weren’t playing and other teams were,” Marottolo said. “That gave this group a lot of motivation. Our guys have a lot of pride, and that playoff series loss really hurt. That hurt is turning into the fuel that we need to take another step. We know that we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re ready to meet the challenges ahead.”
The fourth place team is always in the most interesting position in this league. A two or three game swing can cement it as a first place team, but a two or three game swing the other direction pushes it out of home ice and out of a first round bye altogether. Since the introduction of the current playoff format, the fourth place team in one season didn’t receive a bye during the next year.
Sacred Heart stands to buck that trend, especially given the pieces it has falling into place this year.
Chris’ prediction: Fourth
Dan’s prediction: Fifth