February 22, 2013

Atlantic Hockey Journal: Niagara locks up first-place finish

By Allen Lessels

Carsen Chubak is fourth in the nation with a .942 save percentage for the Purple Falcons. (Photo: Niagara University Athletics)

The finish to the regular season and the Atlantic Hockey tournament are shaping up as quite the show.

Just consider what’s happened in the league in the last week, from top to bottom in the standings.

For starters, Niagara split with Robert Morris last weekend and wrapped up its first Atlantic Hockey regular season championship with four games left to play. That’s all well and good, the Purple Eagles say, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot and they have plenty to play for down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“It’s our third year in Atlantic Hockey and we haven’t done anything in the league,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “Now we have a banner, which is great. But some people say if you don’t go to the NCAA tournament, it’s a wasted season. A lot of people think that way and we certainly do.”

Then hop to the other end of the standings.

AIC, led by senior goalie Ben Meisner, took a pair of games from Sacred Heart over the weekend to extend its win streak to four games and unbeaten stretch to six, which is tied for the longest such mark in the nation.

The Yellow Jackets are on their hottest run ever in Atlantic Hockey and at 9-14-5 overall and 6-11-15 in the league have already won more games overall than in any season since they won 10 in 2002-03.

They are 11th in the league, but have closed to within two points of 10th-place Army heading into this weekend’s home and home series with Holy Cross, and have certainly opened eyes.

“There are probably 11 teams that have a shot to win the tournament going in with the way the AIC goalie is playing,” Burkholder said. “It’s a crazy league in regards to points.”

There was this, too.

So AIC beat Scared Heart, 4-0, on Friday night at home and 9-1 at Sacred Heart on Saturday.

Then Sacred Heart, getting way to close for comfort to a winless season, turned around and beat a Holy Cross team that is looking to seal a bye for the first round of the tournament, 7-3, on Tuesday night in a snowstorm makeup game.

Yes, things could get interesting from here as Niagara tires to hold off Air Force, which has won the last two league tournaments, and a growing crowd of challengers in the playoffs.

The next couple of weeks could be a sign of things to come.

Niagara is home against third-place Mercyhurst on Friday and plays the Lakers on Saturday in Erie and then goes out to Colorado to finish the regular season with a series against Air Force.

Keeping its edge and going into the tournament with some momentum is not Niagara’s only motivation.

Burkholder’s team enters this weekend at No. 10 in the PairWise rankings that mimic the system used by the NCAA to select at-large invitees to the 16-team national tournament.

If the Purple Eagles can finish strong and retain their lofty PairWise numbers, they stand a good chance of making the NCAA tournament even if they stumble in the Atlantic tournament.

Player of the Week

Giancarlo Iuorio, F, sr., Niagara

Iuorio wasted little time getting back in the swing of things for the Purple Eagles. After sitting out 10 games with an upper body injury, he returned with a bang and three goals in a 4-3 win over Robert Morris on Friday night. His second hat trick of the season included the game-winning goal, his fourth of the year. He had a goal and three assists the next night for a seven-point weekend.

Games of the week

Holy Cross at AIC, Friday, AIC at Holy Cross, Saturday

The Crusaders will look to bounce back from Tuesday night’s 7-3 loss at Sacred Heart and continue chasing a first-round bye in the league tournament. The Yellow Jackets have pulled within two points of 10th-place Army in the standings and will look to keep the pressure on the Black Knights. Holy Cross opened its season with a 6-2 win at AIC. 

Power Rankings

1. Niagara (19-6-5, 18-3-2) . . . The Purple Eagles wrapped up their first Atlantic Hockey Association regular season championship with a couple of weekends to spare. Senior forward Giancarlo Iuorio led the way to a split against Robert Morris. Niagara closes with a home-and-home series against Mercyhurst and trip to Air Force.

2. Air Force (14-10-7, 12-6-5) . . . Sophomore forward Scott Holm had a couple of goals and an assist to help the Falcons to a sweep, 3-2 and 3-1, at Canisius. The Falcons jumped over Mercyhurst into second place in the league standings and are at RIT for a pair of games this weekend.

3. Mercyhurst (14-13-3, 12-9-2) . . . The Lakers slipped into third place by losing a series against RIT and now must keep an eye out below. They are in third place, but only two points ahead of Holy Cross, UConn and RIT, who are tied for fourth. Mercyhurst takes on regular season champion Niagara in a home-and-home set this weekend.

4. Holy Cross (15-12-2, 11-9-2) . . . The Crusaders earned a split with UConn, but then wasted one of their games in hand when they lost at Sacred Heart, 7-3, on Tuesday night in a game rescheduled because of the snowstorm.  Holy Cross has a home and home with AIC and then will try again against Sacred Heart at home on Tuesday.

5. UConn (14-13-3, 11-10-2) . . .  The Huskies split a series with Holy Cross, each team winning 4-1 in the other team’s rink, and are exactly where they were last week: In a three-way tie for fourth pace. They are at Army this weekend. UConn and Army played to a 2-2 tie in Storrs on Dec. 7.

6. RIT (12-13-5, 10-9-4) . . . The Tigers moved more prominently into the discussion for the fourth and final bye in the first round of the league tournament with a sweep of Mercyhurst. The Tigers are tied with Holy Cross and UConn for the fourth spot and host Air Force for games on Friday and Saturday.

7. Robert Morris (16-12-2, 11-11-1)  . . . Freshmen forwards Matt Cope and Zac Lynch had goals in each game against Niagara and Colin South scored a pair of goals in Saturday’s 6-5 win, including the game-winner in overtime. The Colonials play Canisius this weekend, at Canisius on Friday and at RMU on Saturday,

8. Bentley (12-15-2, 10-11-2) . . . The Falcons rebounded from being swept by UConn to take three points from Army. Junior goalie Branden Komm had 39 saves in Friday’s 5-3 win and the next night made 54 saves to help preserve a 2-2 tie. Bentley has a home-and-home series with Sacred Heart this weekend.

9. Canisius (11-16-5, 10-11-2) . . . The Griffs slipped from a three-way tie for fourth place in the league to a two-team tie for eighth as a result of being swept 3-2 and 3-1, by Air Force. Canisius is knotted with Bentley and the teams are a point out of seventh place and only two behind another logjam for fourth.

10. Army (7-15-5, 7-10-5) . . . Goals by senior forward Andy Starczewski and sophomore defenseman Mac Lalor (Needham, Mass.) brought the Black Knights back from a 2-0 deficit to a 2-2 tie on Saturday against Bentley. Army hosts UConn for a pair of games this weekend.

11. AIC (9-14-5, 6-11-5) . . . Senior goalie Ben Meisner did it again, stopping 43 of the 44 shots he saw in a sweep of Sacred Heart, 4-0 and 9-1. The win on Friday night was his second shutout in row and eighth of his career. The Yellow Jackets are on a four-game winning streak and are unbeaten in their last six, which ties RPI for the best in the nation.

12. Sacred Heart (1-26-2, 1-19-2) . . . In the 29th game of the season, they won. After being outscored 13-1 in a series by AIC, the Pioneers roared back for a 7-3 win at home against Holy Cross on Tuesday night. Senior Ben Ketchum (Greenwich, Conn.) and junior Chad Filteau each had a pair of goals. The Pioneers face Bentley this weekend.

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