This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Top two seeds AIC, Sacred Heart start conference playoffs with confidence, but both have ‘more to accomplish’

Brennan Kapcheck (8 - AIC) (2017 Omar Phillips)
AIC’s Brennan Kapcheck has compiled 23 assists among 25 points this season for the Yellow Jackets (photo: Omar Phillips).

On March 21, 2015, more than 3,500 fans packed Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. to watch hometown RIT win its first Atlantic Hockey championship in five years.

The third-seeded Tigers felt like a machine that year, finishing in third place before never leaving their own beds for the postseason. RIT swept Air Force in the quarterfinals before edging Canisius and riding a monster third period past Mercyhurst in the championship game.

The win solidified RIT as the league’s top team that year but went further by reinforcing an old Atlantic Hockey stereotype of western dominance. It was the second consecutive “all west” conference semifinal and the third since the league adopted a traditional best-of-three format in 2012.

The only eastern team to advance over that time was Connecticut, which left the league a year later.

Three of the five eastern teams occupied bottom four spots that year, and only one team earned a bye in the top five. It was marginally better than 2012 when three teams played in the quarterfinals but didn’t host.

For a league known as one fist, it sure seemed like some of the fingers weren’t really that strong.

This weekend, though, will feature a much different Atlantic Hockey. Four eastern teams will play in three series hosted well outside the western barns. Bentley plays at AIC, guaranteeing at least one eastern team a spot in the conference championship for the fourth time in the last five years. It’s a new fist, one characterized by equal-strength fingers.

“There are a lot of things that determined how we (operated),” AIC coach Eric Lang said. “It’s because the eastern schools were always ‘have-nots.’ Whether it was scholarships or facilities, it was a west-driven league. It goes directly to facilities, and I think the eastern teams now have some of the best facilities in the league.”

The east-west perception and alignment is the byproduct of Atlantic Hockey’s 2010s era.

The expansion to 12 teams introduced geographic-based pod scheduling, and the league divided its balance among regional lines. It resulted in western teams earning a decisive upper hand, though one eastern team always rose to the top by beating its divisional brethren.

UConn’s departure unbalanced the schedule, ending pod-based play, and in 2015 and 2016, only one team ever finished higher than sixth. AIC and Sacred Heart occupied the bottom over four consecutive years, forcing the league to introspectively analyze itself during college hockey’s realignment.

Schools developed strategic plans to become more competitive, and scholarships and facilities became center-stage conversations.

The result became incremental steps for institutions. AIC, Sacred Heart and Bentley all moved out of public rinks, with Bentley building on campus. AIC and Sacred Heart moved to professional buildings, and each school instituted scholarships.

“Scholarships help you, no question,” Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo said. “We moved into a new rink, and there was a difference. AIC moved into a new building, and had a difference. There’s a difference at Bentley. Those are big components, even though I don’t want to talk for (the other schools). The administration is a big part of it in giving us what we need to compete in our league and nationally.”

The results came gradually.

Sacred Heart lost a playoff series in 2017 to Bentley but won its first three-game series over a western team the next year. Last season, the Pioneers finished in fourth but lost to RIT. This year, Sacred Heart finished second, announcing during the season that it would build a $60 million, on-campus facility capable of rivaling any edifice in college hockey.

“There’s no question these seniors came into Sacred Heart and believed in our vision as a group,” Marottolo said. “They put their trust in the coaching staff so we could get where we wanted to get it. It’s been a slow build, but our assistant coaches did a good job getting the kids that we wanted, both from a talent level and a character level. It’s helped that we’ve added scholarships, and it helped to move into a building like Webster Bank Arena. You combine all of those ingredients, and you get where we are right now. There’s more to accomplish, but we’re hoping to sustain growth and excellence every year.

“You have to go through struggles to get to triumphs. Losing to RIT last year has been the fuel for us this whole year. It left a pit in our stomach that teams were playing during that last weekend and we weren’t. This group has made it a point to really work as hard as they can work. They’ve pushed each other as hard as they can, and that goes to our senior leadership. They said this is the way it was going to be, and everybody fell into place. They pay a price every day, Monday through Thursday, before people see what happens on Friday and Saturday. That preparation and our past failures have made us have a clear focus for what we want to accomplish.”

AIC, meanwhile, completely rebuilt its image.

The Yellow Jackets never hosted a single postseason game before 2018 but won home ice that year by beating Bentley in the last game of the season. After coming within a game of the AHA semifinals, AIC reloaded last year with a magical run to the Jack Riley Trophy and an upset of St. Cloud State in the NCAA tournament. This year, they repeated as regular-season champions.

“We celebrated small victories, and these seniors were determined to change the landscape of AIC hockey,” Lang said. “We’ve made AIC hockey a destination place, and that wasn’t the case four years ago. We’re able to be selective in our recruiting because of what these guys have done. Every play matters (to them), and you have to shed some tears in the locker room.

“The turning point in our turnaround was when we fought for that win (over Bentley). That was the second weekend ever in that arena, and we had a predicament because we had to win in order to get home ice in the playoffs. I remember challenging that group that night because it was a monumental moment for the program. I remember it like it was yesterday when Nicolas Luka scored that goal against Bentley. We still lean on that moment because it was the first time I asked this group to grab that opportunity.”

Both now enter the 2020 postseason as two of the hottest teams in the league.

Sacred Heart is 15-4-2 since Thanksgiving, and AIC is 12-1 in its last 13 games with its only loss coming to the Pioneers. Three years after finishing next to each other in the standings, AIC and SHU did it again but this time as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

“It was really important to finish the year strong,” Marottolo said. “It didn’t mean much to the standings, but it meant a lot to us. We wanted to play well, and we didn’t want to sit on a win or loss for (two weeks). We wanted to play strong, and I felt like we did. We felt good going into our break, which was longer than usual because that game ended our season on a Wednesday. It’s nice to finally get back to a game week with a very experienced Robert Morris team coming in this week.”

“We were never really tracking wins,” Lang added. “We just knew that if we didn’t keep winning, we wouldn’t have won the league (regular season championship) because Sacred Heart wasn’t losing. That’s the beauty of how we did it because we won our way. I go back to this team and how everyone answered the bell when it’s been rung. That excited me about this playoff run.

“We have a really mature team. Any time we’ve had to kick it into third or fourth gear, we’ve been able to do it. We played some really good games where we didn’t get points, so to finish with 21 league wins is a credit to a team that knew it had to kick it into gear, then found a way to do that.”

Atlantic Hockey brags about parity, and each year finds new definitions and heights of equality.

Three eastern teams haven’t advanced to the semifinals since the ill-fated divisional playoffs of 2011. It’s far from a guarantee this year, especially since Air Force-RIT guarantees at least one western team and both Robert Morris and Niagara have championship pedigrees.

But there’s no question the league is very different in 2020 than it was in 2015. The league is now one fist with equal-sized fingers ready to punch above its weight class in the NCAA tournament.

“You look back on it, and we’ve definitely stubbed our toe along the way (this year),” Marottolo said. “But those experiences kept us moving to where we want to be. Our captains have done a good job getting this team on track, and we’ve responded to adversity when it hit. Nobody likes stubbing their toe, but it’s helped us become who we are. It’ll help us now that we’re getting into the playoffs.”

Coronavirus update

The international COVID-19 crisis hit the college hockey universe particularly hard this week when both RPI and Cornell announced they would play their respective ECAC postseason games without spectators. RPI announced the decision earlier in the week following the confirmation of two cases of coronavirus in the Capital Region, while Cornell followed suit in accordance with an Ivy League ruling.

The chief concern is obviously in taking precautionary measures against any possible spread of the virus. On Tuesday, I reached out to Atlantic Hockey about the conference’s outlook and perspective as its final eight teams prepare for their respective weekend series.

The league’s associate commissioner, Steffan Waters, responded with the following statement:

“We, Commissioner DeGregorio and I, have had extensive conversations with league administration and rink managers about the continued threat of COVID-19. We are closely monitoring the situation, which is rapidly evolving as more information becomes known, and will continue to have conversations about player, coach, and spectator safety leading up to this weekend’s games.

“With that said, we fully anticipate our games this weekend going on as planned and with fans in attendance. From everything I’ve read and researched, our four sites this week are clear of reported cases in their areas. Buffalo is also virus free as of this moment so our championship week will move forward as planned as well.

“As a preemptive measure last week, we changed our post-game handshake protocol prior to the first round games. We already require that teams travel with their own water bottles during tournament play so that should be another area of restricted cross-contamination. Other than that, we are encouraging all parties to exercise preventive behaviors, such as frequently washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and refraining from touching your face.

“We understand how difficult of a situation this is. The playoffs are supposed to be the most exciting time of the year. We don’t want our teams playing in fan-less arenas, removing the playoff atmosphere entirely, but we also don’t want to put the student-athletes, coaches, or fans in jeopardy either. It’s a delicate situation and one that is changing by the minute.”

It only costs a quarter

Here are your eight contestants for the league championship weekend in Buffalo. Four of these teams will convene at HarborCenter next weekend. The other four will have anything-but-enviable task of finding golf clubs for the long summer ahead:

No. 8 Bentley at No. 1 AIC

Head-to-head so far: AIC swept Bentley with a pair of wins in January (4-1, 2-1)

Key players for Bentley: Sophomore forward Jakov Novak (16-14-30), senior forward Jonathan Desbiens (13-17-30, 1-3-4 in first round), senior forward Ryner Gorowsky (four goals in first round),

Key players for AIC: Senior forward Blake Christensen (11-17-28, five game-winning goals), senior forward Martin Mellberg (9-19-28), junior forward Tobias Fladeby (12-11-23)

Why Bentley will win: The Falcons are 9-2 in Atlantic Hockey games since losing to AIC, the turning point of which came in the 2-1 loss to the Yellow Jackets

Why AIC will win: Experience, size, skill, desire, and the fact that the Yellow Jackets have lost one game since sweeping Bentley.

No. 7 Robert Morris at No. 2 Sacred Heart

Head-to-head so far: Sacred Heart swept RMU at home in December (6-0, 4-2)

Key players for RMU: Junior forward Nick Prkusic (11-17-28), senior forward Jacob Coleman (9-12-21), senior forward Daniel Mantenuto (5-12-17, 1-3-4 in first round), junior defenseman Nick Jenny (7-4-11, two goals in first round), senior goalie Justin Kapelmaster (.929 sv%, 2.52 GAA, 107 saves in first round)

Key players for SHU: senior forward Jason Cottom (20-17-37), senior forward Austin McIlmurray (18-14-32, 12 power play goals), junior forward Matt Tugnutt (14-16-30), senior forward Vito Bavaro (16-5-21)

Why RMU will win: No team is better in the playoffs, having advanced to six consecutive AHA championship weekends. What better reason is there?

Why SHU will win: Sacred Heart needed to learn how to lose before it could win. Plus add in the benefit of short rest for the Colonials because this series starts on Thursday after playing three games last weekend.

No. 6 Air Force at No. 3 RIT

Head-to-head so far: RIT went 3-1 against Air Force, sweeping in Colorado in October (2-1, 1-0) before splitting in the last weekend of the season (0-3, 5-3)

Key players for Air Force: Senior forward Brady Tomlak (9-17-26, 1-1-2 in first round), junior forward Marshall Bowery (10-6-16, 1-2-3 in first round), freshman forward Willie Reim (6-6-12, 2-2-4 in first round)

Key players for RIT: senior forward Shawn Cameron (18-11-29), senior defenseman Adam Brubacher (4-24-28), sophomore forward Will Calverley (13-10-23)

Why Air Force will win: Air Force is 4-1-1 in its last six, getting hot at the perfect time. It’s also incredibly difficult to beat a team when playing an opponent upwards of five consecutive games.

Why RIT will win: The Tigers went 8-3-3 against league opponents at home. The Falcons went 3-7-4 on the road against AHA teams.

No. 5 Niagara at No. 4 Army West Point

Head-to-head so far: Niagara swept the teams’ only meeting in January (4-1, 3-2 in overtime)

Key players for Niagara: Sophomore forward Jack Billings (12-15-27), senior forward Ben Sokay (11-11-22), senior defenseman Noah Delmas (1-14-15), freshman goalie Chad Veltri (.931 sv%, 2.10 GAA)

Key players for Army West Point: Senior forward Dominic Franco (10-13-23), senior forward Michael Wilson (11-9-20), sophomore forward Colin Bilek (7-13-20)

Why Niagara will win: The Purple Eagles are peaking at the right time, while the Black Knights are 3-6-1 since beating Air Force.

Why Army West Point will win: The Black Knights won three of four and took a shootout win from Sacred Heart before the season ended to stunt the slide.

I love this game

Chris will be taking this year home next week, so this is my final weekly column. I’ll let him thank everyone formally, but I always want to point out a number of different things that I have to say.

This year, for me, really gave me perspective for how college hockey gives me the perfect getaway. I absolutely love showing up at the arena and rink, if only just to sit and soak in the characters and conversation. In a world increasingly embittered or divided or whatever word you want to use, hockey redeems me by letting me talk nonsense with some really great people.

Special thanks to the SIDs who have to deal with me poking my head in. They’re always accommodating and the true unsung heroes of everything we do on and off the air. Also thanks to the coaches and radio broadcasters who make this league the best stable of people in college hockey.

Thanks to my partner Chris Lerch, who for the past seven years (I think?) has become a true hockey family to me. So has Ed Trefzger, with whom I get to occasionally host podcasts and whose camaraderie when RIT comes to town is always welcome. And an ultra thank you to Matt Mackinder, our editor here at USCHO. This is the first time I think I made deadlines in my life. Ever. I wish I was joking.

(Editor’s note: He’s not joking.)

Thanks to our loyal readers, especially those of you who check in with us on the road and on social media. I actually really love taking heat when I’m wrong, which tends to actually happen a lot.

And lastly, the same two final thank yous. First to my brother Michael, who introduced me to college hockey over 20 years ago when he was an undergrad at Brown University. Having Brown at Bentley this year made me happier than anyone can ever know. We’re older, we’ve both been around the block, but he’s still a mentor to me.

And thanks to my wife, Michelle. College hockey is family in our house, and the only good thing about a season ending is being able to go back to being Mrs. Rubin’s Mr. Rubin. She completed the puzzle for me, and she’s all-in when Atlantic Hockey (and Bentley) controls our household from October to March. She’s always there as a sounding board for rewrites and stories, and she’s always quick-witted with a casual response if I need it. She’s the best.

With that, I bid you all a good season. Enjoy all of the hockey still to come, and I’ll see you for the final picks along the way before I go back to losing golf balls in the woods on Saturday mornings.