March 8, 2013

Atlantic Hockey Journal: Falcons in full flight

By Allen Lessels

Air Force has won five of the six Atlantic Hockey tournaments it has played in since joining the league.

In the unlikely event that any college hockey watchers thought that the Falcons might not be up to the task this time around, they served notice to the contrary last weekend when they swept league-leading Niagara.

“This was, hands down, our best series of the year, and we’ve got a lot of momentum going into the playoffs,” Air Force junior defenseman Adam McKenzie, who had a goal and four assists for the weekend, told the Colorado Gazette.

Great, said the backers of each of the league’s other 11 teams.

“It’s Air Force’s league until someone beats them,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder.

Burkholder’s Purple Eagles, who ran away with their first regular season championship, are certainly a contender for the Atlantic playoff title and the berth in the NCAA tournament that comes with it.

And then there are Holy Cross and Connecticut, worthy challengers as well.

But that Big Four must wait.

They earned byes for the first round and home ice for the quarterfinals and will be on the sidelines this weekend as the Atlantic Hockey tournament begins without them.

They will see who survives the four playoff series and how the matchups look when the remaining teams are reseeded.

For now, the stage belongs to No. 9 seed AIC at No. 8 RIT, No. 10 Bentley at No. 7 Canisius, No. 11 Army at No. 6 Mercyhurst and No. 12 Sacred Heart at No. 5 Robert Morris.

AIC and RIT are both in unfamiliar territory and offer an interesting matchup.

The Yellow Jackets went on an unprecedented run late in the season, are 7-1-3 in their last 11 games and have matched their program record of 12 wins as a Division 1 program that was set in the 1998-99 season.

“I think ever since the beginning of January we’ve been playing better and better and been more productive,” said AIC coach Gary Wright. “It’s been a lot of fun. . . . I think confidence is certainly a factor. A lot of times confidence stems from getting a little more success.”

RIT won the 2010 tournament championship, the only one in the last six not won by Air Force. The last two years the Tigers have lost to Air Force in the title game.

This is the first time since joining the league for the 2007-08 season that RIT has not earned a first-round bye for the playoffs.

The Tigers were swept by Canisius last weekend. AIC enters the tournament off a sweep of Bentley.

Player of the Week

Matt Ginn, G, so., Holy Cross

Ginn stopped all 20 shots he saw to beat Army, 2-0, and post his first shutout of the season and third of his career. Ginn also won on Friday night as the Crusaders swept the Black Knights and wrapped up a top four spot in the league and a bye for this weekend’s first round of the tournament. Ginn has 905 saves for the season, which is a record for the program.

Games of the week

AIC at RIT, Friday, Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday

AIC’s climb up the Atlantic Hockey standing through the last month-plus boosted the Yellow Jackets into ninth place and a first-round playoff series at No. 8 RIT. The Tigers finished in a tie for seventh place with Canisius and the Griffs got the No. 8 spot in a tiebreaker. AIC tied RIT, 2-2, on Nov. 2 at home and fell the next night, 3-0.

Power Rankings

1. Niagara (21-8-5, 20-5-2) . . . The Purple Eagles dropped consecutive games for the first time this season when they were swept at Air Force, 5-2 and 6-1. Junior Cody Campbell, playing in his hometown of Colorado Springs, made 40 saves on Saturday. Off this week, Niagara then puts its 20-game home unbeaten streak on the line in the quarterfinals.

2. Air Force (17-11-7, 15-7-5) . . . The Falcons sent a strong message that they’re ready for the playoffs with a 5-2 and 6-1 sweep of Niagara. Junior defenseman Adam McKenzie had an assist in Friday night’s game and then had a goal and three assists in the 6-1 win. McKenzie has exactly half of his 18 points for the season in the last seven games.

3. Holy Cross (19-12-3, 15-9-3) . . . The Crusaders held onto a first-round bye and the No. 3 seed in the tournament with a sweep of Army, 6-3 and 2-0. Freshman defenseman Karl Beckman had two goals in the 6-3 win and is at 4-12-16 for the season. Junior forward Adam Schmidt scored both goals Saturday.

4. UConn (17-13-4, 14-10-3) . . . The Huskies took three points from Sacred Heart with a 4-4 tie and 4-0 win to nail down a first-round bye for the league tournament. Sophomore defenseman Jacob Poe had four assists for the weekend, three in the Saturday win, and senior Matt Grogan made 33 saves for his second career shutout.

5. Robert Morris (18-12-4, 13-11-3)  . . . The Colonials played a pair of ties, 3-3 and 1-1, with Mercyhurst and stayed right where they were in the standings in fifth place. Goalie Eric Levine is first all-time at Robert Morris in career save percentage (.925), goals against average (2.71) and shutouts (five).

6. Mercyhurst (14-15-5, 12-11-4) . . .  The Lakers tied Robert Morris twice last weekend, 3-3 and 1-1, and take an eight game winless streak (0-5-3) into their quarterfinal series at home against Army. The Lakers went 1-0-1 against Army this year and is 19-1-2 against the Black Knights at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.

7. Canisius (13-18-5, 12-13-2) . . . The Griffs snapped their five-game losing streak with a pair of wins against RIT, 6-5 and 4-2, to assure home ice for the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Junior Kyle Gibbons had a goal and four assists for the Griffs. Canisius plays Bentley in the quarters. Bentley won both games in the season series at home.

8. RIT (13-16-5, 11-12-4) . . . The Tigers were swept in a season series for the second time this season and fourth time since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2006 and were denied a first-round bye for the first time since becoming eligible for the playoffs in 2008. They play AIC at home in the quarterfinals. The Tigers tied 2-2 and won 3-0 at AIC this year.

9. AIC (12-15-6, 9-12-6) . . . The Yellow Jackets took a pair of games from Bentley, 2-1 and 4-3 in overtime, to run their record to 7-1-3 in their last 11 games. AIC’s 12 wins match the team’s record as a Division 1 program that was set in 1998-99 as a member of the MAAC. AIC heads to RIT for the quarterfinals.

10. Bentley (12-18-3, 10-14-3) . . . The Falcons dropped a pair of games to AIC over the weekend and slipped into 10th place in the league. Junior Brett Gensler had two assists in Saturday’s 4-3 loss in overtime to move to 16-24-40 on the season. He’s the second Falcon to score 40 points in consecutive seasons. Coach Ryan Soderquist was the first.

11. Army (7-20-5, 7-15-5) . . . The Black Knights lost a pair of games to Holy Cross, 6-3 and 2-0, and finished in 11th place in the league standings. They are at Mercyhurst this weekend. Army tied at Mercyhurst, 1-1, on Feb. 1 and lost the next night, 8-1. Senior Andy Starczewski leads the Black Knights at 10-15-25.

12. Sacred Heart (2-28-4, 2-21-4) . . . The Pioneers tied UConn 4-4 on Friday night and fell 4-0 on Saturday. They trailed 4-2 with less than seven minutes to play on Friday and got a pair of goals, the last from senior Eric Delong with 2:20 left, to tie it. Sacred Heart went 2-2-2 in its last six regular season games.

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com