This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Pushed by solid leadership group, Niagara making late-season run

Noah Delmas (20 - Niagara University), Zach Salloum (18 - RIT) (2019 Omar Phillips)
Niagara captain Noah Delmas anchors the Purple Eagles’ blue line and has chipped in a goal and 11 points in 30 games this season (photo: Omar Phillips).

Like a lot of teams, it’s been an up-and-down season at Niagara.

The Purple Eagles, facing a tough nonconference schedule, opened the 2019-20 campaign 0-8-1, then got hot in November, going 4-0-1 before sliding back to an eight-game winless streak in December and January.

But down the stretch, Jason Lammers’ team is 4-1-0 in its last five games, including a big 6-1 win on Sunday at No. 20 and league foe Sacred Heart. The Purple Eagles flipped the script after falling 6-0 to the Pioneers the day before.

Niagara is currently tied for seventh in Atlantic Hockey with Air Force, three points out fifth and the first round bye that comes with it. Last season, Niagara rode a sixth-place regular-season finish to a spot in the AHA championship game, falling to American International in overtime.

This past Sunday, the Purple Eagles took a big step in keeping their late-season momentum going with the turnaround win at Sacred Heart.

“All credit goes to the guys,” said Lammers. “We have a great leadership group, starting with our captain, Noah Delmas.

“It comes down to how you respond in situations like that and I thought our response was great.”

Delmas, a senior, hasn’t put up the gaudy numbers he did last season. Neither has sophomore Ludwig Stenlund, the reigning Rookie of the Year in Atlantic Hockey.

But Niagara has found a way to stay in the fray, thanks to an improved defense.

“Again, the credit to the leadership group,” said Lammers. “We’ve had to change our identity to win close games. We’ve allowed 25 less goals that we did last year. That comes with maturity.”

Stepping up offensively is junior forward Jack Billings, a transfer from Division III Salve Regina. Billings leads Niagara in goals (10) and points (21)

Second in scoring is senior Ben Sokay, who is on track for a career season with eight goals and 16 points so far.

“With Jack, all the credit goes to him”, said Lammers. “Division III hockey is very competitive and prepared him for the success he’s having at the D-I level.

“And Ben is a great indicator of how we’re doing as a team. When he’s on his game, we’re really good.”

Rookie goaltender Chad Veltri is a main reason for the reduction in goals allowed. The freshman has seen most of the action in net down the stretch, posting a .926 save percentage and a 2.27 GAA.

Despite getting pulled in the second period against Sacred Heart on Saturday, Lammers went back to Veltri on Sunday and the rookie responded, making 31 saves and shutting down the potent Pioneer offense until the final minute of play.

Lammers said he pulled Veltri on Saturday not because of his play, but because of his team’s overall performance.

“Goaltending is obviously a critical position, but the team wasn’t playing great,” he said. “We decided to give (Brian Wilson) a shot, and he played well. Both goalies have earned our trust and have given us a chance to win games.”

With four games left in the regular season, Niagara can finish anywhere from fourth to tenth, meaning a first round bye is still on the table, as is a first-round series on the road.

“Right now we’re tying to be the best team we can be at the end of the season,” said Lammers. “We’ll see where that takes us.”

Where things stand

At this point in the season, it’s all about the standings as teams jockey for position down the stretch.

The top five teams receive a first round bye in the Atlantic Hockey tournament; the top four host best-of-three quarterfinal series.

Teams in position six through eight host best-of-three first round series.

The race isn’t as tight as the nail-biters we’ve seen the past several seasons, with three of the five byes already sewn up.

The battle is in the middle and lower parts of the table, with just four points separating fifth and ninth place. Every team but Mercyhurst is still in the running for a first-round bye, although the odds are slim for Bentley, Canisius and Holy Cross.

Here’s where things stand with two weeks to go:

American International
Current position: First
Games left: Holy Cross (2), at Sacred Heart, at Army West Point
Can finish: First-Third (has locked up a first round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals)

Sacred Heart
Current position: Second
Games left: at Army West Point (2), AIC
Can finish: First-Fourth (has locked up a first round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals)

Army West Point
Current position: Third
Games left: at Sacred Heart (2), AIC
Can finish: First-Fourth (has locked up a first round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals)

Rochester Institute of Technology
Current position: Fourth
Games left: at Niagara, Niagara, Air Force (2)
Can finish: First-Seventh (has clinched at least a home first-round series)

Robert Morris
Current position: Fifth
Games left: at Canisius, Canisius, at Niagara (2)
Can finish: Third-Tenth

Current position: Sixth
Games left: Holy Cross, at Holy Cross
Can finish: Fifth-Tenth

Air Force
Current position: Seventh (tied)
Games left: Mercyhurst (2), at RIT (2)
Can finish: Fourth-Tenth

Current position: Seventh (tied)
Games left: RIT, at RIT, Robert Morris (2)
Can finish: Fourth-Tenth

Holy Cross
Current position: Ninth
Games left: at AIC (2), at Bentley, Bentley
Can finish: Fifth-Tenth

Current position: Tenth
Games left: Robert Morris, at Robert Morris, at Mercyhurst (2)
Can finish: Fifth-Tenth

Current position: Eleventh
Games left: at Air Force (2), Canisius (2)
Can finish: Eleventh

Family ties

Mercyhurst held its senior night two weeks early this season, in order to allow senior Brendan Riley’s dad to be able to be there. Brendan’s father is, of course, Army West Point coach Brian Riley, whose Black Knights played a weekend series at Mercyhurst this past weekend.

Brian’s older son Jack also played at Mercyhurst from 2013 to 2018.

Slight improvement

Air Force dropped a 4-2 decision to crosstown rival Colorado College on Monday outdoors at Falcon Stadium, closing out the non-conference slate for Atlantic Hockey. AHA teams went 16-47-4 (.269), a slight improvement over last season’s .257 (15-49-6). Both were short of the recent high water mark of .348 (21-42-6) set during the 2017-18 season.

Of note:
– Three teams were .500 or better in non-conference play: Army West Point (3-2), Sacred Heart (3-2-1) and RIT (4-4).
– AIC, Robert Morris, Niagara, and Air Force all went winless out of conference.
– Despite finishing last in conference play, Mercyhurst had a pair of non-conference wins, defeating Arizona State and St. Lawrence.

Looking ahead

Every series is big as we approach the finish line, but these could have the largest impact:

Holy Cross at American International – The teams play Thursday and Saturday with the Yellow Jackets looking to sew up their second consecutive regular season title with a sweep, or a win and a Sacred Heart loss.

Sacred Heart at Army West Point – While both teams have clinched first round byes, each still has an outside chance at finishing first. The games are Friday and Saturday.

American International at Sacred Heart – This one doesn’t take place until Wednesday, February 26. Things could be decided by then, but there’s still a chance this game could be for first place, based on results from this coming weekend.