This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Last weekend of regular season has all teams looking ‘to be playing as long as you can’ with playoffs looming

Jason Cotton (9 - Sacred Heart), Adam Brubacher (2 - RIT) (2019 Omar Phillips)
Sacred Heart’s Jason Cotton and RIT’s Adam Brubacher chase the puck down along the boards in a game played earlier this season (photo: Omar Phillips).

Well, everyone. We made it to the last week of the regular season.

Congratulations to all of us for making it to this point.

The 2019-20 regular season began five months ago with the preseason coaches call, but it feels like it happened this morning. I still remember how quickly that meeting felt, how everyone brimmed with confidence and excitement and how coaches oozed the same feelings for Atlantic Hockey.

Every coach and league administrator said the same thing over that two-hour call back in late September: the Atlantic Hockey race never ends, and games played during the first weekend of the season would inevitably factor into the last weekend.

Now we’re here, approaching the final days of regular season hockey, the last time for all 11 teams to take the ice before seasons truly start ending.

It’s typically an Atlantic Hockey custom to walk into the last weekend with a number of weird or wild scenarios on the table. The league is only a couple of years removed from having every single playoff position up for grabs in some capacity, and coaches and fans can vividly recall checking scores and standings in real time as matchups shifted and moved along fault lines for byes.

The chaos won’t be that extreme this year.

American International, which hasn’t lost since just after New Year’s Day, wrapped up the No. 1 seed with its second straight league championship, and Sacred Heart, Army West Point and RIT are locked into the quarterfinal home series with first-round byes. Sacred Heart, which led the league for most of the season, is locked into the No. 2 seed.

Those top four spots aren’t in question from a macroeconomic view, but the hockey math minutiae makes the discussion completely in-depth. Army West Point has a one point lead over RIT for third place but is actually at a disadvantage entering the final week because the Black Knights only play one game against AIC. The Tigers, with two games against Air Force, can easily jump into the No. 3 spot and await, potentially, the No. 6 team in the second round.

And that matchup itself between RIT and Air Force places some uncertainty on the postseason race. Robert Morris is in fifth place and can’t catch RIT for fourth, but the Colonials still need at least a six-point swing in order to clinch their own first round bye. It can happen as early as Friday, which would shake up the playoff matches by sending RMU to Army West Point instead of RIT with wins by both the Tigers and themselves.

“The bye is the ultimate goal,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “You guarantee yourself that second round of the playoffs, and you want to be playing as long as you can. If you get home ice in the first round, you still have to go on the road in the second round. So you always want to finish as high as you can, whenever you can.”

Robert Morris, for what it’s worth, plays Niagara, a team chasing it for that final bye. The surging Purple Eagles are in seventh but, with a sweep, can jump into fifth place as long as RIT holds its part. There’s still an outside shot at fourth place, compounding the matter between the three teams.

“We are in a position to control what we can control,” Schooley said. “If we take care of business, we can be in fifth. If we don’t take care of our business, then we drop down to sixth or seventh.

“We found a way to take points in overtime against a very good RIT team, and we earned a split with a very hot Holy Cross team. We found a way to get five of six points against Canisius. So we’re finding ways to continue to get points, which is what you need to do.”

We made it to the last weekend of the regular season. See you all on the other side of Sunday.

Race for home ice next weekend

Of course, all of these teams have to worry about what’s happening behind them.

Bentley worked its way up to fifth place before dropping a pair to RIT two weeks ago, and last week’s bye kept the Falcons from chasing back into the bye conversation. They stand in eighth place, the last transfer spot for home ice in the first round, but are within a game of falling as far as tenth place. Their spot for home ice is secure with a single win over longtime rival Holy Cross, which would, ironically enough, return east to play Bentley next week in the most likely scenario.

Canisius is the one team standing in the way of that happening. The Golden Griffins are two points behind Holy Cross and play two games against Mercyhurst, which has been locked into the No. 11 spot for a good chunk of time. It means, again, there’s a factored-in road trip to Air Force looming if Robert Morris clinches the bye, and any jockeying for position could send someone west to Colorado for a playoff series on one week’s notice.

The race for home ice is naturally a big deal.

Holy Cross is 6-7-0 at home this year in league games but is 3-7-3 on the road, and Bentley enters this weekend 6-5-2 with a 5-8 record on the road. Canisius, which earned those two ties against Bentley (but won the extra point that I’m not factoring in here), is 2-6-4 on the road compared with 5-7-2 at home. Air Force, which always plays well at home every year, is 7-5-2 at home, but the Falcons went 2-6-4 when traveling east.

The only outlier to the home-ice discussion is Sacred Heart, which went 5-7-1 at home but dominated on the road with a 12-1-1 record.

This is standard life in Atlantic Hockey. The chaos isn’t as extreme as it might’ve been two or three years ago when a fourth-place team could still finish 10th – or something to that effect – but things are going to change hour by hour on both Friday and Saturday. The goal is to control the controllable, even if the other team is trying to do the same.

The additional factor of rivalries this weekend only adds to the intrigue, the drama and the suspense.

Would ties change things?

Chris Lerch posed a hypothetical breakdown a couple of weeks ago. He took the Atlantic Hockey standings, removed the 3-on-3 and shootout results, and reordered the standings according to the old format. He awarded two points for wins and one point to each team for ties, and he found the standings didn’t really change all that much.

I decided to build off of that for this last weekend to see how removing shootouts would change the Atlantic Hockey postseason run. There wasn’t too much movement, to be honest, but the circumstances would drastically change.

The lone change would come near the top of the standings, where RIT would vault one point ahead of Army West Point, instead of playing one point behind the Black Knights. RIT would be four points behind Sacred Heart, but the Pioneers head-to-head wins over the Tigers would still lock them into the No. 2 seed behind AIC. Robert Morris would still be the No. 5 seed playing within the same scenario.

The home-ice spots for the first round, however, would be getting wild.

All three teams – Air Force, Niagara, Bentley – would have 24 points and be tied going into the last two days of the season. The tiebreakers wouldn’t change, but the margin of differential error would drastically alter. Air Force, which is currently three points ahead of Bentley because of five overtime or shootout wins, wouldn’t have that one game differential. It would also impact the drop from Bentley to Holy Cross because the Crusaders, which are one game behind the Falcons with a three-point difference, would be three points behind – or needing two wins to catch home ice.

I’ve made it a habit of asking coaches about the shootout format, and almost everyone I asked offered a completely different opinion. Nuances and idiosyncrasies surfaced only when we furthered the discussion. I genuinely think every coach wants the format to work, and they all embrace the progressiveness of the college hockey game. I also think everyone harbors a different perspective.

I’d also like to point out that I didn’t ask all of the coaches about the format, nor does any one coach represent the bulk of the league. But I personally want to encourage more discussion because I believe this year’s implementation wasn’t perfect.

Enough about shootouts

At least we won’t have to talk about shootouts after this weekend.

Playoff hockey is the purest competition because the games keep resurfacing the ice to play for a winner. Players won’t quit, and games won’t end until there’s a winner. I learned this the hard way last year when I watched overtime rear its head on consecutive weekends (yeah, yeah, I know I talk about that Brown-Princeton game too much).

Every coach wants his team playing its best hockey into the postseason, and the hottest teams are usually able to ride a cresting wave of success to a league championship.

Robert Morris is always my prime example for its 2013-14 season. The Colonials were in last place on Christmas with a 2-10-2 record and a 2-5-2 Atlantic Hockey mark. Then they went 9-1-2 after the holidays and became one of the nation’s hottest teams. RMU wound up finishing sixth that year and promptly rattled off a first-round series win over Army before sweeping its way to a conference championship over the next four games. Again, I come back to this every year because I picked against RMU every round – including in the semifinal and championship game.

American International is by far the league’s hottest team entering the last week of the season, going 11-0 as part of a greater 12-1 run to win its second consecutive regular season championship. RIT is arguably the second-hottest team, going 3-1 over its last two weekends with a larger 7-2-1 run.

Sacred Heart is 6-2-1 in its last nine games as part of a larger 14-4-2 run, and Robert Morris is unbeaten over its last two weekends with a 2-1-2 record dating back further. Niagara, its opponent this weekend, is 6-4-0 in its last 10 games.

Conversely, three teams are all trending in the wrong direction: Air Force is 1-7-2 in its last 10 games (which included nonconference games against Colorado College); Canisius is 0-3-1 in their last four; and Holy Cross is 1-5 in its last six.

It’s important to note, though, how the Golden Griffins (2-1-1) and Crusaders (6-1-1) were smoking hot before the recent runs. Bentley is very similar. It dropped both games at RIT two weeks ago but was 5-0 prior to a loss against Arizona State. Holy Cross also played Arizona State there as part of the Sun Devils’ barnstorming trip through the league.

Good, clean, hate to end the year

All 11 teams will be in action this week as the unbalanced schedule decides the final playoff spots.

In a stroke of luck, the most meaningless game is the one pushed out of the way midweek when AIC and Sacred Heart play out 60 minutes at Webster Bank Arena. That’s the last game of the year for the Pioneers, who are locked into the No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

After that, a number of geographic and historic rivalries will decide the final matchups for the postseason chase to the Jack Riley Trophy:

— RIT hosts Air Force at the Polisseni Center. Both teams entered the league together (almost 15 years ago!) and played a number of Atlantic Hockey championship games against one another. The most recent meeting came in the 2016 semifinal, when the Tigers eliminated the Falcons en route to a conference championship.

— Canisius and Mercyhurst renew the original Atlantic Hockey rivalry, though this is the first two meetings of the season between the two teams.

— Bentley and Holy Cross have an incredibly long history of tough, rugged, physical games against one another, and playing each other on the last weekend of the season produced some pretty vivid memories for me (the 5-on-3 kill for a full two minutes late in the third period comes to mind from the JAR in 2012).

— Robert Morris plays Niagara in a rematch conjuring ghosts from the old CHA. Like Canisius-Mercyhurst, though, this is also the first two games between the teams this season.

— AIC plays Army West Point in a single game on Saturday to decide if the Black Knights finish the season as the three seed, depending on what happens with RIT. These two teams are intricately tied together, with Eric Lang serving as one of Brian Riley’s assistant coaches before returning to his alma mater to forever change the program.