With added attention to defensive game, American International embracing ‘all five guys defending hard on every inch of the ice’

Brennan Kapcheck (8 - AIC) (2017 Omar Phillips)
Brennan Kapcheck leads American International with 15 assists this season (photo: Omar Phillips).

Last season was always going to be magic at American International.

The Yellow Jackets, armed with their black and yellow-colored glass slipper, captured college hockey’s hearts by winning the Atlantic Hockey regular-season and postseason tournament. The ball didn’t even think of ending on the first night in Fargo, N.D., and it took a perennial powerhouse Denver team to finally strike the clock.

So when this season started, AIC understood that 10 wicked stepsisters awaited it back in Atlantic Hockey. A league based on parity and steeped in chaos didn’t expect the defending champs to turn its chariot back into a pumpkin, but it also didn’t want the Jack Riley Trophy trying to force the slipper onto the bee’s wings again.

The Yellow Jackets needed to active defending their crown, and as February looms into the regular season’s final month, that’s exactly what they’ve done. With 11 games remaining on its calendar, AIC is on pace to add another accomplishment to its amazing two-year run and become the league’s most celebrated defensive unit.

“I think the culmination of (every facet of the game) is how you become a good defending team,” head coach Eric Lang said. “You need a team that appreciates playing defensively and enjoys playing (one-goal) hockey games. The team has to embrace all five guys defending hard on every inch of the ice. It’s why we always look for 200-foot players, so our forwards defend as hard as anybody.

“The numbers just take care of themselves.”

It’s a performance on pace to challenge for Atlantic Hockey’s scoring defense record. In the league’s history since 2000, only nine other programs registered season-long conference GAAs under 2.00, three of which came during the celebrated defensive year of 2011-12. Only four of the nine went under 1.90, and the record is 1.82, set two different times. In 2007-08, Army broke a six-year record set by Mercyhurst with a 1.82 GAA, a number equaled by RIT’s Frozen Four team two years later.

AIC is on pace to shatter those numbers. It allowed two goals this past weekend in a sweep over Bentley to lower its season number to 1.71 in Atlantic Hockey games. The next closest team, Sacred Heart, is at 2.10, a number which would rank as the best average in four years.

It’s hardly a fluke because the Yellow Jackets are one of the best teams in the conference at adjusting to in-game conditions. Their eight goals allowed in the third period are three less than Air Force, 15 less than Robert Morris (which is second in goals allowed in the conference) and 13 less than Sacred Heart’s aforementioned second-best, per-game rank. On the short chart, AIC is plus-31 in the third period, and both its scoring and shot advantage borderline equal its second period production.

“Depending on who we play, we might hold onto the puck to play possession more, and other nights might focus on getting pucks into the zone to get defensemen turned,” Lang said. “There’s some things that go into being a good defending team. We focus on giving teams bad ice, but it requires focus on controlling good ice. When we’re doing that, goalies are seeing pucks for easy saves with clear sightlines.

“We don’t get consumed with the number of shots. We get consumed with the quality of chances.”

It’s resulted in eye-popping numbers for the AIC goalies.

Zackarias Skog posted a 1.55 GAA and a .935 save percentage in 13 league games before an injury sidelined him over the past couple of weeks. His understudy, Stefano Durante, who posted a .911 save percentage two years ago as the team’s primary netminder, promptly filled the gap without an issue. In five AHA appearances this season, the junior has a 1.72 GAA and a .941 save percentage.

“They couldn’t be more opposite in their style,” Lang said. “Stefano is an elite thinker in net, and Skog relies on ability. The result, in the net numbers, is the same. I think it’s because we’re predictable in how we defend. There’s that old adage where if you have two goalies, you don’t have one. We don’t subscribe to that. We have two really good goalies that we can put in on any given night against any team in the country.”

The numbers are incredibly rare and difficult to achieve, and with the year far from over, breaking the record isn’t a guarantee. Only one team went under 2.00 goals per game in the seven years since the defensive starlet year of 2012-13, and the last two years pushed the league low well over two goals. AIC still has to play at Robert Morris, with two games remaining against both Sacred Heart and Canisius, the latter of which is the league’s hottest team.

But it can rely on the fact that it’s been to this mountain before. During last season’s magical run, AIC went 12-1 when leading after one period, a number it escalated to 16-0 when leading after two. This year, the Yellow Jackets are 5-2 when leading after one and 9-1 after two periods, numbers it can credit to its ability to play together from the back end up to the front.

“We embrace the fact that we’re mature,” Lang said. “We can embrace that we’ve won big games. We won two overtime games and became comfortable in a 2-1 type of game. Being calm in those situations is something we lean on. The nice thing about older teams is their game management. Our success over the past couple of years is translating into hearing it on the bench, with the players calling out and talking to each other. It’s their directive, and it’s a credit to a team with wins in a lot of hockey games.”

Well, shoot

Atlantic Hockey instituted a new rule this year for handling ties.

League games played the NCAA rule standard, with 60 minutes of hockey followed by five-on-five overtime hockey for a regulation tie. After the game ended, if the score still deadlocked, both teams earned a point before going to three-on-three overtime for five minutes. If the game didn’t end, a shootout ensued. The winner of the extra overtime or shootout earned a second point.

14 games are in the record books with either a 3-on-3 overtime or shootout result, so there’s enough history to begin charting the format’s success.

Every team has at least gone to a three-on-three overtime, and nine of the 11 teams remained deadlocked to a shootout. Both Air Force and Canisius lead the pack with four games apiece, and both coincidentally have 3-1 records with identical 1-1 records in shootouts. Army West Point is the league’s best shootout team with a perfect 2-0 record, though Holy Cross matches its wins total despite one loss.

I think about the new format almost weekly, and there are positives and negatives coming up all the time. The hockey purist in me doesn’t like extending games, but I realize the game went in a different direction. The NHL introduced the shootout after its lockout ended in 2005-06, so the high school and junior hockey recruits don’t necessarily remember the game before it existed. There is definitely a cool factor to it, and the excitement level for a packed crowd is off the charts.

That said, not resurfacing the landing strip for the shootout yields some really choppy ice by the end of the three-on-three overtime. I’m also not in love with the sudden death, best-of-one format, even though it didn’t really matter when Army and Air Force went nine rounds.

The adjustment period aside, I’m not sure which direction hockey should continue. It’s definitely a long conversation and one without a simple answer.

Games to watch

As usual, there’s must-see theater every week in Atlantic Hockey. Here’s what tops this weekend:

— Saturday kicks off the inaugural Connecticut Ice tournament in Hartford, pitting the four Constitution State programs against one another. Sacred Heart draws Yale in the second game of the first day and will face either Connecticut or Quinnipiac on Sunday in either the consolation or championship game. The games will be televised locally on SNY, giving it that same big-game flair as the Beanpot back home for me in Boston.

— Canisius continues to play streaky hot hockey, and the Griffs will put their second-best-in-the-nation unbeaten streak on the line against RIT at the Polisseni Center.

— AIC heads to Robert Morris in a really intriguing matchup for me. I obviously am very high on the Yellow Jackets given the above section, but the Colonials always seem to factor into races in the second half of the season. I’m really interested to see how they do at home against AIC, especially since this is their first meeting since last year’s AHA semifinal round in Buffalo.