February 16, 2012

Atlantic Hockey Journal: In final stretch, points are precious

By Allen Lessels

Bentley, Holy Cross, Robert Morris and Connecticut are the teams in the middle. 

Andrew Cox (right) leads Holy Cross with 25 points this season. (Photo courtesy of Peter Cooke)

The Atlantic Hockey regular season is down to its last two weekends and Bentley, Holy Cross and Robert Morris, in particular, plus Connecticut to a slightly lesser extent, are for the most part looking up in the standings, but still keeping a wary eye out below.

All coaches and players, no doubt, are subscribing to the theory UConn coach Bruce Marshall expressed in The Daily Campus in Storrs after his team’s 5-5 tie with Sacred Heart on Friday night.  

“Every second is important as the points become more precious here,” he said. “We need to treat every game like it's a playoff game.”

In short order, each game will be.

For now, it’s a matter of angling for playoff position.

Going into the weekend, Air Force, RIT Merychurst and Niagara have the inside track on the four top spots in the league, which carry with them a valuable first-round bye and then home ice advantage for the best-of-three quarterfinals.

Bentley, Holy Cross and Robert Morris are lurking close behind and plan to be ready to pounce should anyone above falter.

UConn trails Holy Cross and Robert Morris by three points. The Huskies are also three points ahead of Canisius, which sits in ninth place going into a game at Niagara on Thursday night.

One of the few certainties with two weekends to go is that Army, AIC and Sacred Heart will be going on the road to open the playoffs.

The tournament begins best-of-three, first-round series at the home rinks of the teams seeded No. 5 through No. 8 on Friday, March 2.

The first-round survivors move on to the quarterfinals against the teams that finish from No. 1 to No. 4.

The four teams left standing after the quarters advance to the championship round. The semifinals will be held Friday, March 16, at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. The championship is on Saturday, March 17.

Before that, there’s a regular season to wrap up.

Those teams in the middle? Chances are, they’ll be doing even more scoreboard watching than usual this weekend and next.

First, of course, they need to take care of their own business to assure that they’ll be able to take advantage and move up might that opportunity arise when, for instance, Mercyhurst travels to Air Force for a pair this weekend, or when RIT and Niagara square off in a home-and-home series next weekend.

Robert Morris is in prime position to help both itself and others.

The Colonials play a pair at RIT this weekend and then close out with two at home against Air Force. The flip side is that they surely will have their hands full with two of the league leaders and perennial powers.

Games of the Week

Mercyhurst at Air Force, Friday and Saturday

Air Force accepted the challenge at Niagara last week and came up with three points to become the first team in three weeks to retain its hold on the top spot in Atlantic Hockey.

Mercyhurst gets its shot at the Falcons this weekend. The Lakers enter the weekend tied with Niagara for third place in the league, two points behind Air Force. RIT sits in between, a point behind Air Force and a point ahead of Mercyhurst and Niagara.

Atlantic Hockey power rankings

  1. Air Force (15-7-7, 13-4-6). . . . Senior defenseman Tim Kirby leads Falcons with six power-play goals and three game-winners.
  2. RIT (17-10-3, 14-6-3). . . . Tigers rebound from two losses at Air Force with sweep of Canisius.
  3. Mercyhurst (16-12-4, 13-6-4). . . . Half of freshman Ryan Misiak’s six goals are game-winners.   
  4. Niagara (13-10-8, 12-6-6). . . . Purple Eagles rebound from rough weekend at Air Force with 4-1 Battle of the Bridge win at Canisius on Tuesday.
  5. Bentley (11-12-7, 11-6-6). . . . Brett Gensler scores two in Friday’s win; Dan Koudys gets two in Saturday’s.
  6. Holy Cross (14-13-3, 12-8-3). . . . Outscores rivals 20-4 in four-game win streak.
  7. Robert Morris (14-13-3, 12-8-3). . . . Finishes with two at RIT, two at home against Air Force. 
  8. UConn (12-15-3, 11-10-2). . . . Cole Schneider nets hat trick in 5-5 tie against Sacred Heart, misses 2-1 OT loss Saturday with injury.
  9. Canisius (9-18-4, 9-12-3). . . . Losing streak at three heading into Niagara rematch on Thursday. 
  10. Army (4-17-7, 3-15-5). . . . Senior Mike Hull scores two of team’s three goals vs. Holy Cross.  
  11. AIC (5-23-2, 4-17-2). . . . Junior Adam Pleskach leads team at 12-8-20.  
  12. Sacred Heart (3-24-3, 2-18-3). . . . 0-16-1 in first 17 league games, Pioneers are 2-2-2 in last six. 

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.