After opening the season 0-8-1, Niagara has put together three wins in a row.
It started on Nov. 16 with a big 5-3 victory over archrival Canisius, followed up by a home-and-home sweep of Mercyhurst.
One can assume that keys to this resurgence are the play of junior goaltender Brian Wilson, who was in net for all three wins, including a 5-0 shutout last Friday, as well forward Ludwig Stenlund heating up. The sophomore and reigning AHA rookie of the year was held to just two points in Niagara’s first 10 games, but broke out with two goals and three assists last weekend.
But it’s more than that, said coach Jason Lammers, now in his third season at Niagara.
“The guys have been really committed to each other and have been really connected,” he said. “It’s things that don’t always show up on the scoreboard like winning faceoffs, beating out icings and blocking shots.”
Lammers credits Stenlund’s perseverance when it was tough to score.
“He worked really hard in the offseason to avoid the sophomore slump,” said Lammers. “He’s hit crossbars, posts, and goalies have made great saves on him. It was nice to see him get rewarded.”
Another Purple Eagle with a big weekend was junior Jack Billings, who had three goals and an assist. The transfer from Division III Salve Regina was named the NCAA’s third star of the week.
“He’s a very good player,” said Lammers of Billings, who posted 74 points in 51 games for Salve Regina. “We’re grateful that he chose NU. He’s a great student and has overcome some obstacles in his career.”
Niagara puts its winning streak on the line this weekend, hosting Air Force in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal series, won by the Purple Eagles. The Falcons also got off to a slow start but come in undefeated in their last five games.
“We have a good idea of what to expect,” said Lammers. “They skate like crazy and put a lot of pucks behind you. They compete no matter what the score. We have to match that compete level.”
Whatever the outcome, Lammers says his team will stick to the plan.
“We’re OK,” he said. “We know that we’re on this train ride to be the best team we can be by the end of the season. It’s not a roller coaster.”
On Nov. 21, Alabama Huntsville made its intentions known to leave the WCHA at the end of the 2020-21 season. This is most likely in response to an announcement in June that seven teams (all but Alabama Huntsville and the two Alaska schools) would leave the WCHA at the end of the 2021-22 season and form a new conference.
A possible home for the Chargers is Atlantic Hockey, which has been searching for a 12th member since Connecticut left in 2014.
When asked to comment on the possibility of UAH as the 12th member, the league office released the following statement:
“Atlantic Hockey is aware of UAH’s decision to formally withdraw from the WCHA, however, we have not had any conversations with any Alabama Huntsville official regarding potential membership in the Atlantic Hockey Association. The AHA is in advanced discussions to add a 12th member and that is where our focus lies at this time. Any future expansion talks will be conducted at a later date.”
As those of us in the US prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, here’s a brief look at some of the things the 11 Atlantic Hockey teams have to be thankful for so far this season:
Air Force: There are several outstanding goaltenders in Atlantic Hockey, and sophomore Alex Schilling is making a case to be on that list. Goaltending is often the difference, and Schilling has certainly been that. The Falcons were 0-7 when Skilling took over the starting role. Since then, they’re 4-0-1.
American International: While maybe not getting the headlines that other netminders are garnering, Zackarias Skog is having a quietly impressive season so far: a .924 save percentage and a 2.77 GAA. His numbers are even better than last year, when Skog help lead the Yellow Jackets to the regular-season and tournament championships.
Army West Point: The Black Knights’ penalty kill has put up ridiculous numbers so far: a 97.8 percent success rate, tops in Division I. Army West Point has allowed a single power-play goal in 46 attempts, and balanced that with a shorthanded tally.
Bentley: Sophomore forward Jakov Novak’s seven goals so far this season are more than twice the total of anyone else on the Falcons’ roster. Through seven games, Novak has already equaled his season goal total from last year.
Canisius: The Golden Griffins have to be thankful for the third period. Canisius has scored 20 goals this season, with 11 of them coming in the final stanza.
Holy Cross: Rookie Alex Peterson is fitting right in for the Crusaders. His seven points are second on the team and tied for third in the conference among freshmen.
Mercyhurst: Sophomores turning heads at Mercyhurst, comprising four of the team’s top five scorers. Steven Ipri leads the way with six goals and eight assists.
Niagara: The Purple Eagles are thankful that sophomore Ludwig Stenlund is starting to heat up. The reigning rookie of the year in Atlantic hockey had 42 points last season but got off to a quiet start with just two points in Niagara’s first 10 games. But Stenlund caught fire last weekend with five points in a two-game sweep of Mercyhurst.
Rochester Institute of Technology: The Tigers have to be thankful for their fan support. They drew 9,808 to their annual Brick City game in downtown Rochester, and are averaging 2,345 fans at their on-campus rink. That’s almost 500 more fans per game than Air Force, which has the second-highest average in the conference.
Robert Morris: Goaltender Justin Kapelmaster is making his case for league MVP. The graduate transfer leads the conference and is fourth in the nation in save percentage at .950. His 1.82 GAA is ranked eighth nationally. The Colonials have been outshot 468-312 so far this season but sit atop the Atlantic Hockey standings. Kapelmaster has been the difference.
Sacred Heart: The Pioneers have to be thankful for their offense, which is averaging 3.64 goals a game, tops in the conference and eighth nationally. Sacred Heart has eight players with 10 points or more, and four of the top five scorers in Atlantic Hockey wear the red, white and gray.
Ten AHA teams are in action this coming weekend, so pack some turkey sandwiches and head on down to the rink.
Here are two series that are especially compelling:
Bentley at Holy Cross – These will be the 69th and 70th meetings between the schools, which have one of the top rivalries in Atlantic Hockey. Both teams are looking to break out of slumps as Bentley has lost four in a row, while Holy Cross has dropped four of its last five contests.
Air Force at Niagara – This series is a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals, won by Niagara with a road sweep. Niagara has won three in row and Air Force is 4-0-1 in its last five games including a 3-on-3 overtime win over Robert Morris.