Atlantic Hockey: Down the Stretch
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The reality for the Atlantic Hockey conference is that only one team will make the NCAA tournament, and that's the winner of the conference championship tournament.
And in recent years, the Atlantic Hockey representative has done the league proud.
In 2005, Mercyhurst fell just short of an upset bid of No. 1 seed and eventual tourney runner-up Boston College, falling by a 5-4 score. In 2006, Holy Cross defeated Minnesota in overtime in perhaps the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. And last year, Air Force — a team that finished the regular season in fifth place, with a 13-10-5 conference record — held a 3-1 first-round lead with under 10 minutes to play against Minnesota before the Gophers rallied for a 4-3 comeback win.
Now, with only one weekend's games remaining, let's take a closer look at this year's current standings:
Keep in mind that, in the new Atlantic Hockey tournament format, the top five teams host the bottom five teams in a best-of-three quarterfinal series, and the "Final Five" advance to the championship weekend March 14-16 at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
Next to each team is their current point total, as well as their opponent in the final two games this weekend.
1. Army — 33 points (home-and-home vs. Sacred Heart)
2. RIT — 31 points (vs. Bentley)
3. Sacred Heart — 31 points (home-and-home vs. Army)
4. Air Force — 30 points (vs. American International)
5. Mercyhurst — 28 points (home-and-home vs. Canisius)
6. Bentley — 24 points (@ RIT)
7. Holy Cross — 22 points (vs. Connecticut)
8. Canisius — 22 points (home-and-home Mercyhurst)
9. Connecticut — 21 points (@ Holy Cross)
10. American International — 18 points (@ Air Force)
So, a couple things are certain: Army, RIT, Sacred Heart, and Air Force are guaranteed to host a quarterfinal series.
Meanwhile, Holy Cross, Canisius, Connecticut and American International are guaranteed to go on the road for the quarterfinal round.
Three points separate first place and fourth, and three points separate sixth and ninth, so a lot of playoff positioning will be determined this weekend... but the final weekend essentially boils down to two races to watch: the race for the No. 1 seed and the race for the fifth seed and the right to host a quarterfinal series at home.
We'll know examine both of these races individually.
The Race for Fifth Place
The fifth spot is up for grabs between Mercyhurst and Bentley. But Mercyhurst needs only one point in its home-and-home series against Canisius to wrap up the fifth seed.
Still, Canisius coach Dave Smith, whose Golden Griffins squad could finish anywhere between sixth and tenth remains confident and put this weekend's games into perspective.
"We need to play well this weekend and get our game into top shape for the playoffs," said Smith. "It will be an exciting finish and playoff for sure, with every team capable of beating each other. The team that gets hot right now can win our league and go to the NCAA tournament."
If Canisius pulls off the sweep against Mercyhurst, Bentley must sweep RIT to bring itself into a tie for the fifth spot with Mercyhurst. At that point, the tiebreaker system would kick in, and the result is interesting.
Bentley and Mercyhurst would be tied on the first three tiebreakers used (points head-to-head, goals differential head-to- head, and conference wins). The fourth tiebreaker — goal differential in conference games — would likely give the fifth spot to Bentley, as the Falcons currently have a -1 goal differential, compared to Mercyhurst's current -4.
"Bentley feels that it has been playing it's best hockey the last month and is excited to see it's offense pick up in the second half," said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist.
Again, all Mercyhurst needs to do is earn one point this weekend, or have Bentley earn anything less than four points, in order to secure home ice for the quarterfinal round.
The Race for First Place
Four teams — Army, Sacred Heart, RIT, and Air Force — could still head into the Atlantic Hockey tournament as the No. 1 seed.
The matchup to watch, without a doubt, is this weekend's series pitting first-place Army at third-place Sacred Heart, with only two points between them in the current standings.
For Army, it's really very simple: if the Black Knights finish the weekend with two points, they lock up the regular season title. To put it another way, Army controls its own fate, and the Knights are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games.
Last weekend, Army had a league-record nine-game unbeaten streak snapped, and the player perhaps most responsible for the streak — Army goaltender John Kassel — should be the player to watch this weekend. During the recent unbeaten streak, Kassel posted four shutouts and allowed only five goals in nine games. The junior netminder is currently fourth in the nation in goals-against average (1.94) and also boasts an impressive .923 save percentage. Sacred Heart's junior goaltender, Stefan Drew, is also coming off a strong outing — a 31-save shutout of Holy Cross on Saturday, his third of the season.
Again, with two points or more, Army will be the No. 1 seed. But if Army finishes the weekend with anything less, the door is opened for the remaining three teams. These are the tiebreak scenarios to know:
Army wins tiebreakers with RIT and Air Force. Sacred Heart wins the tiebreaker over Army. RIT wins the tiebreaker with Sacred Heart. Air Force wins tiebreakers with Sacred Heart and RIT.
So, if Sacred Heart sweeps Army, the Pioneers will finish as the top seed unless RIT also sweeps Bentley, in which case RIT finishes in first place because the Tigers win the head-to-head tiebreaker (2-0-0).
Finally, there is one other possibility that would make things much more complicated. If Sacred Heart finishes the weekend with a win and a tie against Army, the Pioneers and Black Knights would both finish with 34 points. Sacred Heart would be the No. 1 seed if only these two teams are tied, but RIT could also finish with 34 points with a three-point weekend against Bentley.
If these three teams finish tied atop the standings, RIT wins the three-way tiebreaker and would be the No. 1 seed.
However, it is also possible for Air Force to finish the season with 34 points if the Falcons sweep American International at home. If Air Force finishes tied with Army and Sacred Heart, the Falcons would enter the tournament as the No. 1 seed. The same result would occur should there be a four-way tie between Army, Sacred Heart, RIT, and Air Force at season's end.
Air Force hosts last-place American International this weekend, so a sweep for the Falcons would position them for a possible first- place finish.
"For Air Force to crack into the top three going into the playoffs, we must do something we have failed to do all season," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. "And that is sweep a conference opponent at home. Our entire roster will have to contribute to our success this weekend and in the playoffs, as we are a team that succeeds on our depth and not specific individuals."
Clearly, a lot is on the line this weekend, as Atlantic Hockey heads to its fifth-ever conference tournament. Again, any of four teams could enter the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, "I can't remember a race for first or home ice ever being so close. The parity in our league and the fact that anyone can finish first in any given year makes our league special.
"This, along with the fact that only the playoff champion from our league will advance to the NCAA tournament, will make our league playoffs as one of the most meaningful playoffs in Division I."