Atlantic Hockey 2020-21 Season Preview: AIC, Bentley, Sacred Heart the early favorites

Air Force swept Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs last March before COVID-19 wiped out the remainder of the season (photo: Atlantic Hockey).

Do you remember where we left off?

It’s painful to think about where things stood on March 12, when Atlantic Hockey players, coaches and fans were looking forward to the league’s quarterfinal round.

The 2019-20 season had already ended for Mercyhurst, Holy Cross and Canisius, all falling in the preliminary round of The Atlantic Hockey tournament. But little did we know that the other eight teams were also done, their hopes gone over the course of a couple of frantic, confusing days.

The news kept getting worse. No playoffs. No NCAA tournament. No Frozen Four.

All gone in matter of hours as the coronavirus took hold.

And just like that, hopes were dashed for all eight teams that remained in the hunt.

To recap:

– For top-seeded AIC, the chance to repeat and return to the NCAA tournament was lost, at least for its seniors. The Yellow Jackets had already repeated as regular season champs.

– For Sacred Heart, 2019-20 was to be the final piece in a rebuilding puzzle that saw its senior class go from 13-19-5 as rookies to 21-10-3 in their final year. The Pioneers were looking to get to the playoff semifinals for the first time since 2010.

– Rochester Institute of Technology was also building towards it best season in a few years. After winning the league in 2015 and 2016, RIT did not have a winning season until 2019-20, finishing third with an overall record of 19-13-4.

– The story is similar for Air Force, which won back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. But after winning a total of 50 games those two seasons, the Falcons had only 28 victories in the two campaigns since then, including a 12-18-6 mark in 2019-20. But Air Force was still very much in the hunt, slated to face off against rival RIT in the quarterfinals.

– Niagara was looking to show that the previous season was no fluke. In 2018-29 the Purple Eagles were picked to finish last in the coaches’ preseason poll, but ended up a goal away from winning the AHA playoff title. Niagara was in contention again, earning a first-round bye and was slated to play at Army West Point in the quarterfinals.

– Speaking of Army West Point, the Black Knights ended up stuck on 17 wins, just two less than their all time high of 19 in the 2007-08 season.

– Coming off a first round sweep of Holy Cross, Robert Morris was to travel to Sacred Heart for a quarterfinal series. The Colonials have not lost a quarterfinal series since 2013, making seven consecutive trips to the conference tournament’s semifinal weekend.

– Bentley was looking to get out of the quarterfinal round for the first time since 2009. The Falcons had been the higher seed in three of their six quarterfinal series over that span.

Now, 11 teams look to either reset or pick up where they left off and forge ahead in what is shaping up to be the most bizarre Atlantic Hockey season to date.

The new normal

As tragic as the way things ended in March, there was hope at the time that things would return to normal for the 2020-21 season. But since then, the definition of “normal” has changed considerably and is still very much in flux.

With the country still finding itself in the tight grasp of COVID, college hockey leagues are hoping to hold some semblance of a season, while keeping players safe by limiting travel and overnight stays.

Gone, for the most part, are weekend roadies, replaced by bus rides back and forth to close rivals.

With that in mind, Atlantic Hockey has broken the conference into two five-team pods, plus Air Force.

The Eastern pod consists of AIC, Army, Bentley, Holy Cross, and Sacred Heart.

The Western pod includes Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT and Robert Morris.

Teams will play five games against their fellow pod members for a total of 20 games.

Air Force will play each team twice, also for a total of 20 games.

Long Island University, in its inaugural season, will play each AHA school twice with the exception of Air Force, with four games scheduled between the Sharks and Falcons.

While playing the same teams five times isn’t ideal, it’s something that schools are willing to embrace.

“Our attitude is we’ll play any time, anywhere against anybody,” said Sacred Heart coach CJ Marottolo. “Our coaching staff and our players really aren’t thinking about it. We’re just happy to compete as a group and try to win a championship.”

“It’ll be interesting, especially when you look at the (preseason) poll,” said Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley.

“AIC, Sacred Heart and Bentley are the top three and they’re going to run the gauntlet of playing each other five times.”

‘I don’t wish this on anyone’

Despite months of preparation and no players or staff testing positive for COVID, RIT announced on Nov. 9 that it was canceling all winter sports for the 2020-21 season. This included the men’s and women’s hockey programs, the only Division I sports on campus.

But a week later, the Tigers got a reprieve when the school, after further consultation with the players and coaches, “reconsidered” and have now granted approval to move forward with the 2020-21 season.

“I don’t wish this on anyone else,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson back on Nov. 10, after hearing that his team’s season was initially canceled. “It’s difficult when you look at your seniors in particular going through three months to get to season off the ground. You can kind of see the finish line (to the start of the season) and then they made the decision.

“They’re making it for the right reasons, but having said that you’re heartbroken for your players.”

And now, hopefully, the reversal was also made for the right reasons.

“It’s obviously great for our seniors,” said Wilson of the reversal. “Our players did a great job when they met with our administrators.

“I’m grateful to our administrators. They stuck out their necks for us and now we need to make good decisions and live up to that.”

It’s clear that as this season plays out, the coronavirus will continue to loom large.

“Guys are concerned,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “Are we going to have a season? Are we not having a season? It’s day to day.”

“I’m going to be careful not to jinx anything,” said Wilson. “Because it all could change on a dime.”


Zach Mirageas tallied 23 points from the Air Force back end in 2019-20 (photo: Air Force Athletics).

Head coach: Frank Serratore (24th season at Air Force)
Last season: 12-18-6, 10-12-6 (tied for 6th) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Junior defenseman Zach Mirageas (3-20-23), sophomore defenseman Brandon Koch (6-13-19), junior goalie Alex Schilling (2.39 GAA, .903 save percentage)
Key losses: Forwards Brady Tomlak (a team-leading 26 points last season), Trevor Stone (16 points last season) and Matt Pulver (seven goals last season)
Key additions: Defenseman Sam Brennan (30 points for Lone Star (NAHL)), forward Nate Horn (46 points for Minnesota (NAHL)), forward Thomas Daskas (48 points for Lone Star (NAHL))
2020-21 prediction: After a slow start, the Falcons were trending in the right direction at the end of last season, winning four of their final five games.

Air Force lost top point-getter Brady Tomlak, but returns blueliners Zack Mirageas and Brandon Koch, who were second and third on the team in scoring.

Also back is junior goaltender Alex Schilling (2.38 GAA and .903 save percentage) who saw the majority of action last season.

“We’re a young group,” said coach Frank Serratore. “The strength of our team is our three senior defensemen and forwards.”

Serratore thinks this team has the potential to follow past champions by getting better throughout the season and peaking at the right time.

“It’s a really spirited group, a very coachable group,” he said. “This group of Falcons is not going to be fun to play against. Come playoff time we’re going to be that Air Force team that nobody wants to draw their number.”

Chris’ Prediction: Eighth
Dan’s Prediction: Eighth

Elijiah Barriga popped 11 goals last year for AIC (photo: Kelly Shea/AIC).

Head coach: Eric Lang (5th season)
Last season: 21-12-1, 21-6-1 (first) in the AHA
Key returning players: Senior defenseman Brennan Kapcheck (2-23-25), senior forward Tobias Fladeby (12-11-23), junior forward Elijiah Barriga (11-8-19), senior goalie Stefano Durante (2.34 GAA, .918 save percentage)
Key losses: Forward Blake Christensen (119 career points), forward Martin Mellberg (91 career points), forward Hugo Reinhardt (76 career points), defenseman Patrik Demel (55 career points), goalie Zackarias Skog (2.64 GAA, .904 save percentage)
Key additions: Forward Julius Janhonen (40 points for HIFK U20 (SM-Liiga)), forward Kyle Jeffers (57 points for New Jersey (NAHL)), Goaltender Jake Kucharski (transfer from Providence and 2018 draft choice of the Carolina Hurricanes), defenseman Zak Galambos (transfer from Minnesota State, one point in four games last year), defenseman Sam Miller (40 points for Shreveport (NAHL)).
2020-21 prediction: There was a time this year when Eric Lang wasn’t sure he would have a season. It wasn’t because the school intended to shutter the program or because he didn’t think he could manage a season; it was because American International College would have a substantially harder time getting its players into the United States during a time when international travel was severely restricted.

“There was a time in July or August when we thought we’d have to find 10 American players,” Lang laughed. “We were sending guys to embassies to get visas, and a lot went into it. They’re all here now, and we’re not letting them leave, which presents its own challenges.”

Lang eventually landed his troops in Springfield, and now his full roster is poised to continue the unprecedented success of two consecutive league championships. Last year’s class, the most decorated graduating class in AIC history, revitalized the program and built the foundation for the future.

Sustaining that run will ultimately fall on the leadership of returners like Brennan Kapcheck and Tobias Fladeby combined with the development of the team’s young, talented freshmen. Five are full-blown European internationals, but the class will bring depth and balance to the team’s roster.

“We graduated ten terrific players who will have promising pro careers,” Lang said. “We brought in 13 new faces, but the delayed start was a little bit of a blessing to get our guys up to speed. We’re not rushing new faces into hockey games, and we’ve gotten them acclimated. That’s been a good thing. We have arguably the best player in the league in Brennan Kapcheck and arguably the best goalie in Stefano Durante. We lost a lot, but we brought back a lot.”

Chris’ Prediction: First
Dan’s Prediction: Sixth

Colin Bilek was voted a team captain this season for Army West Point (photo: Army West Point Athletics).

Head coach: Brian Riley (17th year)
Last season: 17-3-3, 14-11-3 (fourth) in the AHA
Key returning players: Junior forward Colin Bilek (7-13-20), senior defenseman John Zimmerman (2-17-19), senior forward Mason Krueger (9-9-18), junior forward Eric Butte (8-7-15), sophomore forward John Keranen (2-12-14)
Key losses: Forward Dominic Franco (97 career points), forward Michael Wilson (67 career points), forward Zach Evancho (82 career points), defenseman Alex Wilkinson (76 career points)
Key additions: Forward Lincoln Hatten (61 points for Wilkes Barre/Scranton (NAHL) ), forward Mitch Machlitt (62 points for New Jersey (NAHL)), forward Eric Huss (43 points for Lone Star (NAHL)), defenseman Brody Medeiros (25 points for New Jersey (NAHL))
2020-21 prediction: Few teams match the Black Knights sheer consistency over the past five years. Restricted to only recruiting American citizens for military service, Army West Point instead built a tough, physical hockey team capable of winning on any single night. It led to a striking distance of third place last year and a considerable jump reminiscent of 2017’s 18-win finish.

Army doesn’t so much rebuild as it reloads, and the stream of talent constantly brings an influx of good hockey players dedicated to the team. The team can lose players like Dominic Franco by fitting new replacements into the lines, and the defensive pairings provide mentorships for players in front of the net.

Even goaltending isn’t an obstacle for the team this year after Trevin Kozlowski played 31 games with one of the league’s best goals against averages that dropped from 2.20 to 2.16 in conference games.

“I think it’s a combination,” Riley said. “It started for us in August with a crawl, walk, run mentality. The attitude of our guys, with the length of this preseason, has been great. I don’t think I’ve walked out of the rink disappointed with effort or their approach to practice. They can see the light at the tunnel, but we’ve been approaching one day at a time to control what we can control.”

Chris’ Prediction: Fifth
Dan’s Prediction: Fourth

Lucas Vanroboys played in 32 games in 2019-20 as a freshman at Bentley (photo: Bentley Athletics).

Head coach: Ryan Soderquist (19th year)
Last season: 17-16-3, 13-13-2 (tied for sixth) in the AHA
Key returning players: Junior forward Jakov Novak (16-14-30), sophomore forward Matt Gosiewski (10-14-24), senior forward Luke Santerno (6-17-23), senior forward Brendan Hamblet (6-17-23), senior defenseman Matt Lombardozzi (2-11-13)
Key losses: Forward Jonathan Desbiens (102 career points), forward Ryner Gorowsky (76 career points), defenseman Brett Orr (54 career points), defenseman Connor Brassard (53 career points), goalie Aidan Pelino (2.72 GAA, .905 save percentage)
Key additions: Forward Zach Pellegrino (28 points for the Junior Bruins (NCDC)), transfer forward AJ Villella (25 games last season for Northeastern), defenseman Drew Bavaro (33 points for Wenatchee (BCHL)), goaltender Nicholas Grabko (2.68 GAA for Green Bay (USHL))
2020-21 prediction: Bentley’s quixotic journey around the league tournament took a new turn last season when the initial COVID-19 outbreak robbed Atlantic Hockey of a star-studded quarterfinal series against AIC. The Falcons were the hottest team in the league by then and made a compelling case to possibly dethrone the Yellow Jackets.

Instead, the biggest what-if faced down the team’s offseason after another year of offensive firepower. The fourth-best Atlantic Hockey offense ran deep with 20-point scorers, and the power play rocketed to fifth after starting the season with struggles. The defense hit its stride at the end of the year and balanced its goaltending with a late-season resurgence that allowed three goals only twice in its last eight home games.

“We return a really solid core of guys,” Soderquist said. “We have four or five of our top scorers, a strong back end, as well as goaltending. We’ve added tremendous depth, and that was something in the recruiting that we really had to pick up. We wanted to fix that, and based on what I’ve seen in the preseason, we can’t tell the difference between the first or fifth line.”

Finding Bentley’s groove this year will be difficult if last season’s trend continues. The Falcons scored 100 goals for the ninth time in the last decade but surrendered 100 goals for the fourth time in five years, and the penalty kill finished tenth. Still, in a year when things are most fluid, there is enough experience to drive the Falcons back towards the top of the standings, especially after going 6-4 against eastern pod teams with only one sweep loss to AIC.

Chris’ Prediction: Seventh
Dan’s Prediction: Seventh

Canisius’ Lee Lapid tallied the overtime game-winning goal in the Golden Griffins’ 4-3 win over Sacred Heart on Jan. 17, 2020 (photo: Canisius Athletics).

Head coach: Trevor Large (4th season)
Last season: 10-20-6, 9-13-6 (9th) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Sophomore goalie Jacob Barczewski (2.92 GAA, .905 save percentage), sophomore forwards Lee Lapid (11-10-21) and Keaton Mastrodonato (10-7-17)
Key losses: Forwards Nick Hutchison (113 career points) and Matt Hoover (99 career points), goaltender Daniel Urbani (42 career games)
Key additions: Forwards Cooper Haar (45 points in 50 games for Lone Star (NAHL) and Aberdeen (NAHL)), Niclas Puikkonen (44 points for Amarillo (NAHL)) and Max Kouznetsov (49 points for Johnstown (NAHL))
2020-21 prediction: The past two seasons were a drop off from 2016-17 and 2017-18, which saw the Golden Griffins combine for 40 wins. Last year’s 10 victories was the lowest for Canisius since 2011-12.

“The last two seasons have not been what we wanted them to be,” said Coach Trevor Large. “Our goal is to simply get better.

The Griffs lose their three leading scorers from last season, but return juniors Lee Lapid (21 points last season) and Austin Alger (21 points).

A bright spot last season was the play of goaltender Jacob Barczewski (2.92 GAA,.905 save percentage), who returns for his sophomore season, along with junior Matt Ladd.

“We graduated some big-time scorers, so we’re going to have to adjust offensively,” said Large. “And we’re focused on being better defensively and harder to play against.”

Chris’ Prediction: 10th
Dan’s Prediction: 10th

Holy Cross goalie Matt Radomsky emerged as the Crusaders’ top goalie a season ago (photo: Mark Seliger Photography).

Head coach: David Berard (7th season)
Last season: 11-21-5, 9-16-3 (tenth) in the AHA
Key returning players: Senior forward Logan Ferguson (7-15-22), senior forward Pete Kessel (12-6-18), junior forward Conner Jean (12-6-18), sophomore forward Alex Peterson (7-9-16), junior defenseman Matt Slick (3-7-10), sophomore goalie Matt Radomsky (2.90 GAA, .903 save percentage)
Key losses: Forward Kevin Darrar (54 career points), forward Neil Robinson (23 career points), defenseman Jack Surowiec (19 career points), defenseman Will Brophy (17 career points)
Key additions: Forward Alec Cicero (64 points for Buffalo (OJHL)), forward Lucas Thorne (81 points for Bonnyville (AJHL)), forward Jack Ricketts (70 points for Oakville (OJHL)), defenseman Jack Robilotti (nine points for Fargo (USHL))
2020-21 prediction: The pod-based season means the loaded eastern pod will have a team fall to the lower third of the standings despite its relative strength. So even though Holy Cross might contend and pressure the other teams in its division, the overall, higher picks defaults the Crusaders into a lower prediction.

That doesn’t mean this team is doomed to the bottom tier. Holy Cross went on a 6-1-1 tear through January before losing a handful of close games down the stretch, and flipping even half of those results easily pushes this team into bye contention. The returning pieces were flat out good last year, and there are top-tier athletes at every position. The addition of players like Cicero, a point per game forward in the OJHL, adds depth.

“The last two years, we’ve been on the younger side,” Berard said. “We’ve had a little bit of a turnover, but now we’re turning the corner of our experience. We took lumps in our win-loss, but we gained experience, and we have guys that we feel strongly about. The adversity that we’ve had will turn into a big positive for us, and it’s going to be a battle. There’s no surprises to play teams five times, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The most intriguing piece of the puzzle is Radomsky. He burst into the Atlantic Hockey goalie conversation last year with nearly 2,000 minutes played, and his 2.90 GAA and .903 save percentage put him right in the conversation with Omaha’s Isaiah Saville and Western Michigan’s Brandon Bussi in the national second tier of goaltending standouts. If he takes a step forward with the defense, he will leave those names behind and join Chad Veltri in pressuring players like Spencer Knight for the best in his class.

Chris’ Prediction: Ninth
Dan’s Prediction: Ninth

Steven Ipri will be counted on for more production this season for Mercyhurst (photo: Ed Mailliard).

Head coach: Rick Gotkin (33rd season)
Last season: 5-29-2, 3-23-2 (11th) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Junior forwards Dalton Hunter (7-14-21) and Steven Ipri (10-8-18)
Key losses: Forward James Anderson (20 points last season), senior goaltenders Garret Metcalf (47 career games) and Colin DeAugustine (44 career games)
Key additions: Forwards Dante Sheriff (62 points in 47 games for Austin (NAHL)) and Keanan Stewart (52 points in 54 games for Burlington (OJHL)), goaltenders Kyle McClellan (.909 save percentage for Omaha (USHL)) and Hank Johnson (graduate transfer from Bemidji).
2020-21 prediction: The 2019-20 season was by far the worst in Rick Gotkin’s 32 years behind the bench. Part of it was rebuilding from a team that lost 11 players, and part of it was bad luck.

“I think our team was better than our record, but we couldn’t find a way (to win),” said Gotkin. “Scoring was an issue for us. We lost a lot the year before and then with injuries…it was a perfect storm.”

Mercyhurst will still be very young, with 10 freshman added to the roster. In all the Lakers will feature 23 underclassmen.

Junior Dalton Hunter (21 points last season) leads the offense, along with classmate Steven Ipri, who was the team’s leading scorer before suffering a season-ending injury last January.

Graduate transfer Hank Johnson (Bemidji State) will provide some experience in net to supplement two rookie netminders, Matt Lenz and Kyle McCellan.

Gotkin is taking a glass-half-full approach, as he usually does, even finding a sliver lining from last season’s abrupt end.

“We were one of the ‘lucky’ teams whose season ended with a two-game loss to Air Force (in the first) round,” he said. “We got some closure.”

Chris’ Prediction: 11th
Dan’s Prediction: 11th

Justin Wishman skated in 29 games a season ago, posting three assists for Niagara (photo: Niagara Athletics).

Head coach: Jason Lammers (4th season)
Last season: 12-18-4, 12-12-4 (5th) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Junior forwards Ludwig Stenlund (51 points through two seasons) and Jack Billings (12-15-27 last season), sophomore goalie Chad Veltri (2.10 GAA, .931 save percentage).
Key losses: Defenseman Noah Delmas (99 career points), forward Ben Sokay (11-11-22 last season)
Key additions: Forwards Christian Sorscak (64 points in 51 games for Johnstown (NAHL)), Matt Cameron (49 points in 50 games for New Jersey (NAHL)) and Trevor Poeze (63 points for Kanata (CCHL))
2020-21 prediction: Two seasons ago, the Purple Eagles were coming off a last-place finish but made it all the way to the AHA title game, losing to AIC in overtime.

Last season, Niagara was in the hunt, finishing strong to an eventual fifth seed and first round bye.

Expect Niagara to again be back near the top of the standings this season. Defenseman Noah Delmas will be missed, but back are leading scorer Jack Billings (27 points last season) and goaltender Chad Veltri (1.98 GAA, .932 save percentage), who was named to the all-rookie team last season.

“We’re going to be bigger and faster this year,” said coach Jason Lammers.

“Like last year, we want to finish better than we started.”

Chris’ Prediction: Second
Dan’s Prediction: Second

Robert Morris’ Nick Prkusic put up 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points last season – all tops on the Colonials (photo: Justin Berl/RMU Athletics).

Head coach: Derek Schooley (17th season)
Last season: 13-19-5, 11-12-5 (tied for 6th) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Senior forward Nick Prkusic (11-17-28), junior forward Jastin Addamo (6-13-19) , senior goaltender Dyllan Lubbesmeyer (2.51 GAA, .921 save percentage)
Key losses: Goaltender Justin Kapelmaster (All conference second team), forward Luke Lynch (105 career points), and Jacob Coleman (21 points last season)
Key additions: Forwards Randy Hernandez (95 points in 57 games last season for Brooks (AJHL) and Matthew Guerra (63 points in 51 games for Lone Star (NAHL), as well as defenseman Brian Kramer (19 points in 34 games for Fargo (USHL)
2020-21 prediction: The Colonials are again on the young side, with eight incoming freshmen for the second year in a row.

Derek Schooley’s team is looking to extend its stretch of making it to the conference semifinals every year since 2014.

“We’re looking to continue our streak which got interrupted last year before the quarterfinals,” said Schooley.

“We’ve got a small senior class but we have a lot of experience.”

Senior Nick Prkusic is back, looking to improve on his team-leading 28 points last season. Also returning are junior forward Justin Addamo (6-13-29) and classmate defenseman Brendan Michaelian (6-6-12).

Star goaltender Justin Kapelmaster, a graduate transfer last season, has moved on, leaving the netminding job open.

“Our one big question mark is in goal,” said Schooley.

“We’re excited to get going. Like everybody else, we’ve done a lot of good things off-campus to get where we are and hope that continues.”

Chris’ Prediction: Fifth
Dan’s Prediction: First

Logan Drackett (30 - RIT) (2018 Omar Phillips)
Logan Drackett is now a senior and RIT’s No. 1 goalie for the third straight year (photo: RIT Athletics).

Head coach: Wayne Wilson (22th season)
Last season: 19-13-4, 15-9-4 (3rd) in Atlantic Hockey
Key returning players: Senior goalie Logan Drackett (2.75 GAA, .907 save percentage), senior forward Jake Hamacher (9-17-26), sophomore forwards Elijah Gonsalves (9-15-24) and Caleb Moretz (9-15-24)
Key losses: Forward Shawn Cameron (29 points last season), defenseman Adam Brubacher (106 career points)
Key additions: Defensemen Dimitri Mikrogiannakis: (third among blueliners in the BCHL with 46 points in 57 games) and Diarmad DiMurro (sixth in BCHL with 38 points), as well a forward Cody Laskosky (86 points in 56 games for Camrose (AJHL)
2020-21 prediction: We’re back on.

After announcing there would be no RIT Men’s or Women’s hockey this season, the school reconsidered a week later and now is planning to move forward.

The Tigers are looking to keep things trending in the right direction after last season’s 19-13-4 record, their first winning mark since 2015-16.

RIT returns eight of its top ten scorers, led by senior Jake Hamacher (26 points last season) and freshmen Caleb Moretz (24 points) and Elijah Gonsalves (24 points).

The biggest hole to fill is on defense, with the Tigers losing four regulars to graduation.

“The defense is going to have to mature quickly,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “The delay to the start of the season is helping with that to a certain degree.”

Back in net is senior Logan Drackett (2.74 GAA, .907 save percentage) who was all-conference last season.

But it’s the offense that stands out the most, according to Wilson. “We really like our forwards,” he said. “It’s as good a group as we’ve had in a while.”

Chris’ Prediction: Fourth
Dan’s Prediction: Fifth

Sacred Heart celebrates a goal during the 2019-20 season (photo: Sacred Heart Athletics).

Head coach: CJ Marottolo (12th year)
Last season: 21-10-3, 18-8-2 (2nd) in the AHA
Key returning players: Senior forward Matt Tugnutt (14-16-30), sophomore forward Braeden Tuck (5-23-28), senior forward Marc Johnstone (9-18-27), senior forward Jordan Kaplan (9-15-24), junior forward Austin Magera (8-15-23), junior goalie Josh Benson (2.49 GAA, .906 save percentage)
Key losses: Forward Austin McIlmurray (86 points), forward Vito Bavaro (83 career points), Forward Jason Cotton (81 career points), defenseman Mike Lee (58 career points)
Key additions: Forward Ryan Doolin (52 points for Alberni Valley (BCHL)), forward Carson Gallagher (44 points for Johnstown (NAHL)), forward John Jaworski (11 points in 41 games for Chicago (USHL)), transfer forward Emil Ohrvall (15 games for Michigan and 63 points for Waterloo (USHL))), transfer forward Adam Tisdale (59 career games for Clarkson), defenseman Grant Anderson (20 points for Omaha (USHL)), defenseman Andrius Kulbis-Marino (17 points for Tri-City (USHL) and Maine (NAHL)), goalie David Tomeo (2.73 GAA for Johnstown (NAHL))
2020-21 prediction: To win championships, a team needs to have success in every phase of five-on-five hockey, and its special teams need to score or prevent goals at crucial times. Goaltending needs to back up defenders, and the cohesion will spring an explosive attack. In other words, Sacred Heart hockey has every piece to win the championship.

“We really like the mix we have,” Marottolo said. “We have depth at all positions. I think our depth is our greatest strength. We have players who didn’t get a lot of exposure last season because of the players in front of them, but they’re ready to take the next step. In short, we really love this team.”

Sacred Heart loses two of the three best scorers in the league, but it returns major pieces from the league’s best offense and second-best defense. The power play executed at nearly 30 percent last year with a penalty kill just under 85 percent, and the Pioneers have long been defined by their ability to work as a team.

One team will rise to the top of each scheduling pod, and even in the evenly-matched East, Sacred Heart has less to replace than both AIC and Army West Point. That should rocket the Pioneers to the top of the standings, although the overall strength of the East could hurt their chances of winning the league’s regular season crown.

Chris’ Prediction: Third
Dan’s Prediction: Third

Sharks start inaugural season, will play AHA schedule

Looking at the Long Island University hockey logistics: ‘I think I’m excited that folks are excited about us’Long Island University’s announcement to start and play a men’s hockey season this year was met originally with raised eyebrows. The Sharks started their program amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and putting together a schedule with a competitive roster felt like a steep uphill battle for a team that hadn’t even hired its coach.

When the puck finally drops on the 2020-2021 season, though, LIU will play and will do so with a competitive coach, a fiery roster and a vision unto their own.

“(Starting the program) forced me to become adaptable,” head coach Brett Riley said. “We hoped to have a competitive team with a good group of kids, but as soon as we got these guys onto our team, we knew we had to map out a one-year, two-year and three-year plan. It’s one thing to put something together when people thought we couldn’t do it, but we’re also 61 of 61 (and) a zero-win program.”

Riley is the next generation of his family’s coaching tree and the next head coach after his legendary grandfather, Jack, coached decades at Army. His father, Rob, took over the Black Knights when Jack retired, and uncle Brian is the current head coach. Brett, though, established himself as an assistant coach at Colgate and is no stranger to starting a program after inaugurating the Division III program at Wilkes.

His Sharks will compete this year as an unofficial member of Atlantic Hockey, an independent program with games against every team in the league. The majority of series are home-and-home against the eastern schools with road trips to the western pod and a four-game home-and-home against Air Force. There are two additional games against the ECAC with a road game at Quinnipiac and a game at Union.

“When (commissioner Bob Degregorio) reached out, it was really a savior,” Riley said. “We would have made due, but it wouldn’t have been to this extent. I’m appreciative and fortunate, and I owe Bob a lot. It’s a little bit of hockey karma; my dad helped form Atlantic Hockey when he was at Army, and it helped a lot of (lower division) schools get into Division I hockey. We had a lot of people looking for us – my uncle Brian, Eric Lang, Frank Serratore, David Berard, guys like that – that helped get this going, and it salvaged our season.”

LIU will host its games at the Northwell Health Ice Center, the practice facility for the New York Islanders, and isn’t intending to play as a token expansion team and recruited its roster to reflect its competitive spirit. Nearly a dozen players transferred into the Sharks from other NCAA programs, a list that included three goaltenders. Two transfers – goalie Garrett Metcalf and defenseman Carter Ekberg – transferred from other AHA teams while a larger bulk, including Stephen Mundinger and Vincent Purpura, transferred from Hockey East programs.

“We have three goalies who played at this level, and we have defensemen who played in NCAA tournament games,” Riley said. “Our team is hungry. (A good percentage) of our incoming freshman class captained their junior teams, which is something we looked for. We wanted guys who went through adversity, and we are fortunate to have a mix. We will have some turnover, but we can build with this great freshman class.”