This Week in Atlantic Hockey: American International off to fast start, handling adversity well, on and off ice

American International goaltender Stefano Durante picked up both wins in the Yellow Jackets’ sweep of Air Force to open the 2020-21 season (photo: Kelly Shea/AIC).

Eric Lang woke up last Friday morning with butterflies singing a familiar tune on his nerves.

It felt distant from the last time he heard them, but the traditional rite played music he instantly recognized.

The anxiety cranked up the volume as he got closer to the MassMutual Center, and they peaked right before the mid-afternoon sun started to turn down over downtown Springfield, Mass.

It was game day. The long-awaited game day. The song, which he longed to hear last March, couldn’t have been more beautiful.

For Lang, the opening puck drop breathed a collective relief for his American International hockey team. The Yellow Jackets finally skated against a team other than their teammates and began their second consecutive Atlantic Hockey championship defense. They arrived to play Air Force, but it didn’t matter which team was on the other bench.

The chance to play games finally and, in some ways, improbably was at hand, and two days later, Atlantic Hockey’s two-time first place finisher was right back where it ended, atop the league table with six points after a weekend sweep of the visiting Falcons.

“It was nice to wake up and have a little anxiety and nerves knowing we had a hockey game,” Lang said. “But then the puck drops and you get back into wanting to play well to win that game. The results were outstanding for us, but we don’t get to that point without 200-something consecutive negative COVID-19 tests in a row. I’m equally as proud of our guys for what they are giving up and the discipline and sacrifice to get to that point. It’s not easy.

“These kids are not having a traditional college experience, so we deserved to play hockey.”

AIC stayed true to form in those first two games by winning both with a dramatic flair. The team rallied from down one in the first game after surrendering a goal in the first 90 seconds to win 3-1 before it held a one-goal lead on Saturday despite Air Force’s third-period domination.

The Yellow Jackets scored five times with five different goal scorers and spread effectiveness through each of their four lines.

Freshman Aaron Grounds scored his first goal six minutes into the first period on Saturday and led a weekend rally by sophomore Hunter Johannes and freshman Nico Somerville with the former adding an assist to his one goal in seven previous games and the latter earning his first career point on AIC’s first goal of the season.

It blended success into the older, more established players. Both Tobias Fladeby and Chris Dodero registered two-point weekends with one goal apiece, and goaltender Stefano Durante stopped 36 of the 38 shots he faced, including all but one of Air Force’s 12 shots in the third period of Saturday’s 2-1 win.

“We handled (adversity) unbelievably well,” Lang said. “Our bench demeanor was perfect. I really liked us in five out of the six periods, and (Air Force goaltender Alex) Schilling was really good on Friday. On Saturday, it was 2-0, and we felt it could’ve been three or four. Credit to Air Force for pushing us in the third period, but five out of those six periods, we were really good.”

The wins continued an established trend from AIC’s breakout span of the past three years by including at least one one-goal victory. The Yellow Jackets own a .633 winning percentage in those situations since the start of the 2017-18 season, a number jumping to an absurd 17-6, .739 percentage in Atlantic Hockey games. They faced 11 one-goal games last year, including eight in conference play, with six wins all against conference competition.

“We have been unbelievably comfortable in (one-goal) hockey games over the past two or three years,” Lang said. “Internally, we know that’s our kind of game. We like when it’s tight, and it’s low-scoring and every puck and play matters. Our guys have been conditioned, and we don’t get too high or too low during a game. That’s an AIC hockey game, and our guys believe that.

“I believe we returned a top forward, a top goalie and maybe the best player in the league with (defenseman) Brennan Kapcheck. We returned a lot of pieces that have won a lot of hockey games, and we have an influx of freshmen that’s as strong as we’ve ever had. Usually you have to lose to learn a lesson, but we had teaching moments on Saturday. That was more of a credit to Air Force than what we were trying to do.”

Aaaaaaand they’re off

College hockey’s early season schedule endured a bumpy ride in its initial ascent after postponements torched matchups throughout the initial weekends. The cancellations stole the center spotlight, but they didn’t overshadow the electricity generated by some early-season headlines.

Take RIT.

The Tigers built a snowman on the Polisseni Center ice with their 8-5 win over a nationally-ranked Clarkson team in their opener, two weeks after the university reinstated the program after initially canceling the entire 2020-2021 season. Junior Will Calverley scored a hat trick, and seniors Alden Dupuis and Jake Hamacher, players who thought their college careers were over, added equal flair against the Golden Knights.

Or how about LIU? The Sharks’ emotional ringer to even step on the ice as college hockey’s 61st team ran the gamut before their first game against Holy Cross. The program raised more than a few eyebrows when it announced its intention to play this fall, but the Atlantic Hockey scheduling lifeline enabled the overtime winner in its inaugural game. They were outshot, 41-15, by Holy Cross in that game and only put one shot on goal in the third period and overtime, but Christian Rajic earned the first-ever win for head coach Brett Riley.

For what it’s worth, Holy Cross answered handily the next night by building a 4-0 lead in the third period before winning, 5-2, in another wild matchup with 46 shots on goal.

Then there’s Canisius, the team picked 10th by both Chris and me in our preseason preview. It beat Robert Morris (my preseason favorite to win the league), 5-2, last Friday before dropping a 5-4 decision on Saturday. The Golden Griffins trailed in that game, 2-0, before the teams traded goals in the second period to cut the lead to 3-2. The heavy blows continued into the third with four combined goals, though the Colonials’ Randy Hernandez picked up the game winner with under a minute and a half left in the game.

Games of the Week

It goes without saying that the upcoming schedule is subject to change, but the week ahead, if it holds, will have some compelling storylines and some really exciting matchups:

— AIC hosts LIU in the Sharks’ first games against Atlantic Hockey’s defending champion. It’s not exactly a secret that LIU is looking for a conference landing spot, and wins over the AHA’s biggest dog would go a long way to proving it as a competitive team. I’m also pretty sure that this is the first “Sharks” game at the MassMutual Center since the Worcester Sharks became the San Jose Barracuda.

— Bentley and Army West Point had two hitting after the whistle penalties, two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and two five-minute major penalties that drew game misconducts last year. They meet for the first time this weekend with the series starting at Tate Rink before shifting to Massachusetts.

— Sacred Heart will jump on the ice for the first time this season. My preseason pick to essentially win the eastern pod, the Pioneers will make the short trip to Holy Cross before a Sunday matinee return match.

— Robert Morris makes the first trip of the year to Air Force after the Falcons played AIC this weekend. As a reminder, the Falcons are the lone Atlantic Hockey team not bound by geography and will play two games against every team in league competition.