This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Long Island making impact against AHA squads, gaining confidence by the day

Long Island’s Zack Bross poses with the game puck after scoring two goals against RIT in the Sharks’ 4-2 win on Dec. 11 (photo: LIU Athletics).

Obtaining the first benchmarks are of incredible importance for new teams.

New coaches and players are able to obtain special occupancy by reaching the first of anything, and memorable moments can occur when there are no preceding files. The initial occurrences start tradition and inspire hope for something greater, and the souvenirs line trophy cases as future representations of springboard events.

Long Island University’s season-opening 3-2 overtime victory over Holy Cross produced a dramatic first victory for the Sharks’ hockey program. They rallied from a 1-0 deficit to take a 2-1 lead and won in the extra session when Christian Rajic rippled a goal into the Crusader net. It was a resounding victory and exploded the deeper edges around social media, and the lasting image of LIU pouring off of the bench to celebrate acknowledged the rise of an impossible moment.

Gaining that first victory proved the Sharks belonged on the ice. The next victory ensured they stayed there.

“The ride has been wild, but it has been for everyone,” said LIU coach Brett Riley. “We feel very fortunate that we’ve been able to play four games, and every time we can practice and play games is an added bonus. We went into the year knowing we could be competitive with a something to prove mantra. We had that belief and fire to prove something, but we’re fortunate to compete on any given night.”

LIU’s win over RIT came a month after the Holy Cross series, but it was the Sharks’ next game after postponements pushed the schedule backwards. More prominent stories shrouded the series into the background, but the all-important second win arrived with another second period rally.

The Tigers had taken a 2-0 lead over the Sharks before LIU pushed forward with three goals en route to an eventual 4-2 lead. Zack Bross scored twice around goals by Gustav Muller and Mitch Meek, and goaltender Garrett Metcalf held on to preserve the lead after RIT pulled within a goal.

RIT won the second game of the series, but even playing .500 hockey erased any remaining doubt about the Sharks’ spot in college hockey. They stormed past another Atlantic Hockey incumbent, but this time it was over a team with a previous win over a nationally-ranked Clarkson team. It was the second straight series with a win over a top-half team and a second consecutive road split.

“I was incredibly ecstatic to get our second win,” Riley said. “I think the narrative around the first win was that we might be a Cinderella story in a fluky game where the goalie stands on his head. We knew as a group that we could do it again, and that’s why the second one was maybe more important than the first. People looked at shots and statistics and didn’t see committed defense or grade-A scoring chances, so we were really pleased to go up to RIT and get that second win.”

The first two series offer a glimpse of the resounding momentum at college hockey’s newest outpost. LIU is still stamping out first moments, but those will come with targeted improvement. The overall program is strong, and it enters its matchup next weekend against league-leading AIC with a very real, earned confidence as a team starting to form an identity.

Riley understands the importance of those firsts but further recognizes the equilibrium the team is achieving. Initial games featured lopsided shot totals, but LIU is improving across the board. Its initial minus-53 shot disadvantage against Holy Cross halved in the RIT series, and the Sharks outshot an opponent for the first time in the first period of the second game against the Tigers. Bross’ two-goal game was the first multi-goal performance in program history, and all three goaltenders have seen minutes behind the defense.

“A lot of people might not know that we never had one power play or penalty kill,” Riley said. “We never warmed up in those jerseys (prior to Holy Cross), so there’s a lot of firsts that people don’t take into account for unique scenarios. We had no previous statistics, which is why everyone that’s on our roster that’s healthy and eligible has played. We believe in opportunity and a foundation of giving everyone a clean slate. We think they took a chance on us, and we owe it to them.”

It’s a loud charge for a program once questioned aloud by the college hockey community. LIU announced its intention to play hockey this season on short notice, and the COVID-19 pandemic obliterated its initial schedule. The lack of a conference home contributed to questions about long term viability.

Initial success required buy-in from players and coaches, and the untapped determination originating from Riley’s staff is creating constant believers ready to embrace No. 61. What happens the rest of the way doesn’t necessarily write LIU’s book, but the next series of firsts – the first home game and, one day, the first game with fans – will continue to pave a road for a program eyeing its new tradition on the ice.

“I’ve been a head coach at the prep level and in Division III, but this is a different beast,” Riley said. “I just have tried to challenge myself to keep a good perspective with schedule changes, cancellations, and that we’re here to support these guys who took a chance on us and our university and what we’re trying to build.

“At the same time, there are no moral victories,” he continued. “We go into games expecting to win, and the guys are privileged to have a couple of wins under their belt. Now we’re challenging our team to be better in all areas, and that starts with us as coaches. We’re working on the areas in the power play, and we’re working on generating offense. But I couldn’t be happier with the buy-in in our culture, and I’m on cloud nine here.”

This season, explained

The holiday break usually represents standard time off for teams to regroup and reboot their seasons before the start of the second half of the year.

This year is obviously different for a number of reasons, but I felt the quieter week around the holidays offered the perfect opportunity to reset our understanding about the Atlantic Hockey format for this season.

Atlantic Hockey split its season into two pod-based schedules in order to minimize any overnight trips between schools. It geographically broke its 11-team league into two, five-team divisions with Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT and Robert Morris in the west and AIC, Army West Point, Bentley, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart in the east.

Each pod team scheduled five games for a total of 20 games against the other programs in its pod without crossover to the other division. Every Atlantic Hockey team then received two games against Air Force either at home or in Colorado for a total of 22 games per team, and two additional nonconference games against Long Island offered a grand total of 24 games per team. Other nonconference games against other teams such as Clarkson, Colgate and Quinnipiac obviously counted as extra games in accordance with NCAA protocols.

Air Force remained the lone exception because of its geographic outlier status. The Falcons drew two games against every league opponent and four games against LIU in order to reach the 24-game number, but the 20 conference games automatically unbalanced the schedule in comparison to the 22 games offered to every other team in the league.

To ensure competitive fairness within the league, Atlantic Hockey moved in a different direction for its playoff format. All 11 teams still qualify for the postseason in a single division format, but seeds are based on a points percentage over total points or winning percentage.

That means AIC is in first place with 100 percent of its league points, but Mercyhurst and RIT entered Tuesday tied for second place with less points than both Robert Morris and Holy Cross. Bentley’s five points are in ninth place behind three teams with three points because of the number of games played, and those overtime wins now mean 33 percent instead of just one point.

I admit that the format is weird and will likely cause chaos as the season enters its latter stages, but the necessary move enabled the league’s return to play. Every league is doing something to firm up the integrity of its standings, and Hockey East most recently announced a change to its format to include all 11 league teams. Any games played in that league, including those designated as non-conference flex games, now count towards the standings, though the conference didn’t announce any other formatting if the schedule finishes unbalanced.

The last piece in all of this that I think warrants mentioning is the LIU scheduling arrangement. The Sharks’ initial season blew apart after COVID-19 shattered the concept of non-conference games, and the Atlantic Hockey lifeline offered LIU a season. They are not, though, a member of the conference, and games do not count towards the standings. They are still a Division I Independent, even though their competition all runs through the AHA.

The story we needed to end 2020

This is our last weekly column of the 2020 calendar year, and I am almost entirely too relieved to send this year into the abyss. This was a brutal year on and off the ice for way too many people, and I know I’m refreshed to start a new, untapped 2021 with promise and hope.

I refuse to let 2020 end on a sour, negative note, though. We need to punt the last 12 months – or the one long month, as one of my coworkers described it the other day – into oblivion with a stamp of positive energy and an emotional story elevating the human spirit. There is nowhere else anyone could find a story like that than in the hockey community.

Eric Otto was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2018, and I spoke with him over the phone for an article in October of that year. I followed his greater story as college hockey rallied around his cause, but his triumphant return from cancer didn’t include a single game last year with his AIC Yellow Jackets.

He missed his entire freshman season, but last week, head coach Eric Lang added him to the team’s dress list for AIC’s game against Army West Point. Otto started that game and skated onto the MassMutual Center ice to a beautiful triumph and stick tap salute from both his teammates and the Black Knights.

At the end of the game, Army West Point’s coaches and players all saluted Otto and offered a heartfelt tribute in saluting his courage and dedication to return to hockey. It was a beautiful moment, even without a crowd, and it solidified the bond between players who skate against one another in battle for three periods.

This year really tested my spirit, and I know the daily struggle challenges everyone to find positives around them. Battling fatigue and despair occasionally feels like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, and I used that example way too often this year.

The holiday time, though, reminds us to find happiness in the little things. We might not celebrate like we did in normal times, but nothing can touch the human spirit and the values of love, courage and determination. There is good in this world, and strength is ascending mountains all around us. Humanity is a wonderful thing, and we can do some pretty amazing things.

I wish you all a heartfelt Happy Holidays, and I hope for the happiest times lurking around the corner. I look forward to pushing together, even if we feel further apart. Stay safe, and I look forward to meeting up with you all in 2021.