Atlantic Hockey Preview
by Matthew Conyers/CHN Reporter
A look at Atlantic Hockey:
Coach: Frank Serratore
2007-08 Record: 21-12-6 (14-9-5 in AHA)
How they finished: When the curtain closed on the 2007-08 regular season, Air Force was four games out of first place. But who needs regular-season championships anyway? Led by the aggressive, gritty and opportunistic play that has characterized Frank Serratore's team the last few years, Air Force played its way to the championship game where it beat Mercyhurst in a thrilling double-overtime contest. The championship victory marked the first time in league history that a team has won back-to-back titles. To get to the final, the Falcons defeated RIT 5-0 in the semifinals in the most lopsided game in semifinal history. Yet, the story of Air Force's tournament run goes beyond just its last two games; in total the Falcons outscored their 22-7. In the NCAA tournament, Air Force lost by one goal for the second straight season. This time the victor was the tourney's No. 2 overall seed Miami, who beat Air Force 3-2 in overtime. Just like a year before, Air Force led with eight minutes left in the third period only to fall prey to another late rally. The late season resurgence was all the more impressive after Air Force lost Eric Ehn in Jan. "We got hot and lucky at the end and we were able to win two big games," Serratore said. "We lost five-of-eight going into the playoffs; it's a long journey and we know how difficult it is."
Changes: To be honest, there's not many. Still that doesn't lessen the impact of Eric Ehn and Frank Shiavone's departures. In Ehn and Shiavone, Air Force loses two of its most talented and hardest working players. Over the course of his career, Ehn had been a Hobey Hat trick finalist and a AHA Player of the Year. As for Shiavone, he might not have had the towering numbers but he played in all but two of the Falcons' games last season and had five goals and five assists. Hoping to make Air Force fans think of less of the Ehn era are a group of seven newcomers. Anchored by transfer Jacques Lamoureuz, from North Michigan, Air Force as has an interesting mix of Falcon Rookies. Three of the six freshmen come from the USHL — Mark Williams, Scott Mathis and Tim Kirby. Each one of the three will try and fill the minimal holes in Air Force's defense. "We don't get those type of what I call BCS [as in the type of recruits big-name schools get], we get good people and good groups that fit in well with our type of program," Serratore said. "We want the freshman to come in and mix well with our nucleus."
Strength: Offensive Depth. The Falcons are deeper than arguably any team in the conference despite losing arguably the league's best player in Ehn. Senior Brent Olson and junior Jeff Hajner tied for the team lead with 38 points last season and senior Greg Flynn, second-team all-conference last season, was ranked fifth in the nation in scoring by a defenseman with 31 points. Junior Matt Fairchild had 29 points, senior Josh Frider had 27 and sophomore Derrick Burnett had 26 points. In total, Air Force returns 84 percent of its goal scoring.
Weakness: Winning at home. It might sound silly at first, especially in a league where road wins are hard to come by at all, but Air Force needs to improve at home. Despite sweeping Quinnipiac at home and then beating Denver later on in the season, the Falcons never swept a conference foe until the AHA quarterfinals against Bentley. "We need to improve upon our inability to win at home," Serratore said. "These guys are a lot smarter than me, I haven't had to stress that at all. We know what we need to do to improve."
Outlook: The last two seasons, Air Force was just eight minutes away from winning a NCAA tournament game. It might be too early to claim the AHA tournament trophy, but who's to say this team isn't just as lethal. The top six scorers and 11 of the top 13 return for a loaded Air Force team. But let's not stop there, the team's top six defensemen and big game goalie Andrew Volkening (who set school records with a 2.09 GAA and a .911 save percentage) are back for what could be an extremely special year for the Falcons. Oh yeah, did we mention the Falcons have a little added incentive after the way the last two seasons wrapped up? "This is a fresh set of canvas — we just want to start playing," Serratore said. "We're not thinking about last year we're just ready to get going on the journey."
Predicted Order of Finish: 1st.
Coach: Gary Wright
2007-08 Record: 8-23-5 (8-17-3 in AHA)
How they finished: It wasn't a warm end to the season for AIC. After beating Bentley on back-to-back nights during the second week of February, the Yellow Jackets rattled off four straight losses before a stalemate against Air Force in Colorado Springs in the second to last game of the season. To see the clearest picture of AIC's season, one need not look further than the second half of the year. After the new year, the Yellow Jackets won just four games.
Changes: Mike McMillan, the Yellow Jackets' leading scorer, remains but the offense will struggle to replace five of last season's top 10 scorers. AIC loses three of its best playermakers and scorers in Mark Pavli, Jereme Tendler and Chris Bolognino. Pavil and and Tendler each recorded more than 20 points last season. Beyond McMillan, AIC returns just five players that had over 10 points. Head coach Gary Wright will look to freshmen Steve McLeod and Tom Mele to shoulder some of the offensive burden if they can adjust quickly to the college game.
Strength: Goaltending. Despite facing plenty of action in front him, freshman Dan Ramirez stood strong in net for the Yellow Jackets. He will be asked to shoulder an even bigger load this season for a defense that ranked last in the league.
Weakness: Offense. Against a league that is stacked at the goalie position, AIC needs to vastly improve upon its 2.39 goals per game average — it ranked 8th in the league. The Yellow Jackets need to find ways to win and that means scoring more than 67 goals in a season.
Outlook: In each of the past three seasons, AIC has shown signs of emerging out of the AHA cellar. However, this season, with the loss of so much offense, that task will be more difficult than it has been in four years.
Predicted Order of Finish: 10th.
Coach: Brian Riley
2007-08 Record: 19-14-4 (17-8-3 in AHA)
How they finished: Even to look at it now — more than six months later — the run still is ever impressive. In its final 16 games, Army went 13-2-1. With 12 seniors leading the way for head coach Brian Riley, Army took Atlantic Hockey by the collar in January and ran with it all the way to finish for the regular-season title. However, what will be remembered by most Army fans is how it ended. Army fell 4-2 to Mercyhurst in the AHA semifinals — a heart-wrenching defeat for a team that played inspired hockey all season.
Changes: To say a new day has dawned at Army might be an understatement in the grandest degree. After graduating a talented and classy group of 12 seniors, Riley goes back to the drawing board with 13 newcomers. The biggest losses will be Luke Flicek and Bryce Hollweg at forward and Chase Podsaid at defense.
"This is a whole new team, we're replacing 12 seniors," Riley said. "From the start the focus will be creating unity among the team and getting that close knit feeling we had last season. Obviously, it will be hard. But we have three great players coming back that will lead us [Josh Kassel, Owen Meyer and Zack McKelvie]."
Strength: Goaltending. Atlantic Hockey's embarrassment of riches between the pipes has been well-documented this past year and nowhere is that more evident than at Army. The Black Knights return All-American senior Josh Kassel, who is the reigning Player of the Year in the league after recording a 1.92 GAA and a .925 save percentage. But Army's strength in net doesn't stop there. Joe Spracklen and Jay Clarke are as formidable a pair of secondary goalies in the league.
Weakness: Experience. Depleted by graduation, it could take he Black Knights a while to adjust to the rigors of the long college hockey season. "We lost a lot of great players that certainly left a mark on the program but it wouldn't be fair to this group if we didn't come in with high expectations for this season," Riley said. "We're excited about the challenge this new schedule brings. It's an exciting time especially because of all the fresh faces."
Outlook: There's no denying that the Black Knights will take a hit this season in the wins department. But with Kassel in net, forward Meyer and defenseman McKelvie, don't write off Army just yet. The first test arrives early: Army plays 15-of-its-first-18 games on the road. "Our guys like going on the road, it helps to create that bond and chemistry everyone looks for," Riley said. "The road games will be the best thing for this group but it's not just about a trip, it's about trying to win two games.
Predicted Order of Finish: 6th.
Coach: Ryan Soderquist
2007-08 Record: 9-21-6 (9-13-6 in AHA)
How they finished: For the second straight season, Bentley finished the year in eighth place. On paper or on ice, the results aren't much to look at. With nine wins all season, the bright spots are few and far between with two three-game winning streaks happening nearly three months apart. The lows, however, are easier to chart. Four times during the season, Bentley recorded winless streaks of five or more games. Twice the Falcons were winless for seven games and at the end of the season, they went on a five-game slide. The difficult year concluded with a sweep in the quarterfinals by Air Force. In those two games, Bentley was defeated by a combined score of 12-3.
Changes: The Falcons are back with no drastic alterations. Instead, they boast a strong core of experienced players that will be ready to prove the doubters wrong. Newcomers Kyle Rank, Ryan Kayfes and Mike Switzer all figure to make an immediate impact for a team that was fourth in power play and sixth in overall offense last season.
Strength: Power Play. It may not get the most opportunities — only five teams had less chances — but Bentley does its best to capitalize when it can. The Falcons scored 25 power-play goals for an 18.1 percent success rate, which was fourth-best in the conference. With all the key pieces back, there should be no reason why the two units won't improve.
Weakness: Defense. Whether on special teams or five-on-five, the Falcons need to protect their net front and limit the amount of shots their opponents take. Bentley ranked eighth in team defense and seventh on the penalty kill. As a team, the Falcons let in 124 goals.
Outlook: Bentley has a lot to be happy with at the start of the season. However, a lot of other teams in the lower half of the conference are excited too. With so much improvement across the board, it will be tough for the Falcons to move up.
Predicted Order of Finish: 9th
Coach: Dave Smith
2007-08 Record: 11-20-6 (10-13-5 in AHA)
How they finished: The Golden Griffins were a mixed bag the entire the season. Throughout the year, Canisius got nice wins against Army, Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst and RIT. Yet too often, Canisius regressed. After several of its biggest wins, it suffered extended losing streaks of at least three games. The season ended with back-to-back beatings by Mercyhurst in the quarterfinals, where the offense could only muster one goal a game.
Changes: All but two of Canisius' top 10 scorers are back. The names missing on the roster will be David Kasch and Kyle Bushee. Kasch, a forward, scored 10 goals and had 15 assists, while Bushee, a defenseman, had 6 goals and 12 assists. Besides Bushee and Kasch, Canisius said goodbye to defensemen Scott Follett, Greg Brown and backup goalie Bryce Lucker. Rookie forwards David Kostuch and Adam Brace are pegged as the replacements for the two departed forwards.
Strength: Offense. Back are Josh Heidinger (26 points), Cory Conacher (17 points), Jason Weeks (20 points) and Vinnie Scarsella (31 points) for an offense that ranked seventh in the conference. With a more game-ready junior class and a talented group of playmakers that look for the pass first, the Golden Griffins will certainly beef up the offensive numbers this year.
Weakness: Taking Penalties. No team racked up more penalty minutes than Canisius last season. If the Golden Griffins want to turn around that record, they need to start limiting the times they put the penalty kill unit on the ice. Time to get disciplined.
Outlook: In his fourth season with Canisius, Dave Smith might be about to embark on his best season with the program.
Predicted Order of Finish: 7th.
Coach: Bruce Marshall
2007-08 Record: 13-21-3 (11-14-3)
How they finished: Loaded with freshman from the start, the Huskies weren't expected to do much last season and rightfully so. With 12 rookies, the team needed time to gel and come together. After about 30 games, it was evident that bond had been established. UConn went on to win its last four regular season games and proceeded to force three games against a good Sacred Heart team in the AHA tournament quarterfinals. The surge at the end of the season snapped a season-worst six-game losing streak.
Changes: One forward, Charles Solberg, is gone and nine freshmen make their debuts for the Huskies this season. Among the newcomers are Robbie Reiners (Des Moines Buccaneers), Josh Bernard (Cushing Academy) and Chris Waterstradt (Springfield Jr. Blues).
Strength: Penalty Kill. Simply put, no one was better. The Huskies had an 86.5 percent success rate in conference, which was 2.4 percent better than the nearest competitor. With no losses, head coach Bruce Marshall won't let UConn slip from the standard it set last season.
Weakness: Offense. Simply put, no one was worse. The Huskies had just 79 goals all season and averaged 2.21 a game. The power play was even more dismal. UConn had only 13 power-play goals.
Outlook: Junior goalie Beau Erickson is a great lifeline between the pipes and Andrew Olson has a real nose for the goal, but bottom line: every one of the four offensive lines needs to improve. Otherwise, the growing student body in Storrs will continue to walk right past the arena on its way to Gampel Pavilion for basketball.
Predicted Order of Finish: 8th.
Coach: Paul Pearl
2007-08 Record: 10-19-7 (9-15-4 in AHA)
How they finished: Despite a surprising low number of wins, Holy Cross was still just two overtime victories away from beating RIT in the conference quarterfinals and advancing to the semifinals to play Air Force. On back-to-back nights, RIT and Holy Cross played a pair of classic overtime games with RIT winning each 5-4. It was a tough pill to shallow for the Crusaders. Still the series against RIT could've been avoided. Holy Cross went 2-9-1 after Jan. 15.
Changes: Pearl's crew welcomes 10 new faces to the locker room. The biggest impact will be felt on defense with four freshman joining the mix. In his 15th season, Pearl is asking a considerable amount out of Mike Daly, Matthew Davis, Kyle Atkins and Matt Clune. "I hope all the freshmen will make an impact this season," Pearl said. "The key to the team is how quick these guys get down the speed and pace of the game, and how long it takes for them to get comfortable." Jordan Cyr will also be touching the ice for the first time since transfering from RPI.
Strength: Team speed. "We're very quick getting up and down the ice and we're going to try and utilize that on offense and defense," Pearl said.
Weakness: Experience. "The guys got to get the feet wet and play the game," Pearl said. "We're excited about every team we have, but there are certain challenges that come with starting a young team with a good group of veterans and a lot of new faces. It's a blank canvas but we have a vision we want to try to get to."
Outlook: With sophomore Adam Roy (.911 SP), Brodie Sheahan (33 points), eight of its leading scorers back and a dangerous power play that was the second best last year, Holy Cross is not going to finish with only 10 wins again. The question is: Can those young defensemen adapt enough to give the Crusaders a shot at home-ice in the playoffs.
"We feel we can skate with any [team] and hang with any team," Pearl said. "I don't think we're the most talented, but we'll have opportunities. Every league has swings in momentum. It happened to us in '05 and '06. To be blunt, we weren't good enough last year. We hope to get some wins in conference early this season and get some bounces. We've got a shot and that's the beauty of the sport."
Predicted Order of Finish: 5th.
Coach: Rick Gotkin
2007-08 Record: 15-19-7 (11-10-7 in AHA)
How they finished: In the end, it was just one goal. That's all that separated Mercyhurst from a trip to the NCAA tournament and victory over Air Force in overtime. After missing the first part of the season because of an injury, Matt Lundin helped lead the Lakers to the championship game by allowing just five goals in the entire tournament. Plagued by injuries throughout the year, Mercyhurst still managed to place fifth in the conference standings by year's conclusion.
Changes: First off, Lundin should be healthy. After undergoing off-season surgery, the senior is eager for his best season ever and a chance to lead the Lakers back to the NCAA tourney. Still that doesn't you completely forget that Ben Cottreau is gone. Cottreau leaves Mercyhurst as one of the Gotkin's best lieutenants. He registered 156 points during his career. Hoping to fill Cottreau's void will be returning players Ryan Toomey, Matt Pierce and Scott Pitt. Pierce and Pitt combined for 48 points last season. In regards to the five freshman — Patrick Goebel, Derek Elliot, Kevin Noble, Max Stang and Phil Ginand — Gotkin expects all of them to develop into good players at Mercyhurst.
Strength: Depth. The Lakers return all but four players and are talented at every position. Plus, eight-out-of-10 of the leading scorers are back. "We have everyone back and we think we're a seasoned team with size and skill," Gotkin said.
Weakness: Defense. Gotkin's group let in 3.18 goals a game last season. With just as tough a schedule as last season—St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha—the Lakers will need to do whatever it can to stop the puck from finding the back of the net in their own zone.
Outlook: A Championship run is both possible and expected in Erie. Just how good will Mercyhurst be? The first 15-out-of-21 games set to be played on the road will give fans a good guess.
"Our goal is the same as it has been every year, this year is no exception — we want to be in the top four and playing for it all," Gotkin said. "It is a terrifically competitive conference, there is no easy night. In the past if we could play pretty average and still win. That is not a possibility anymore."
Predicted Order of Finish: 2nd.
Coach: Wayne Wilson
2007-08 Record: 19-12-6 (15-8-5)
How they finished: After winning the conference regular season title in 2007, RIT was once again in the hunt last season. Although, it failed to win back-to-back regular season titles, RIT finished just two wins shy of a dream bid to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers were shut out by eventual champion Air Force 5-0 in the semifinals. In the final month and a half, RIT was 7-3-2.
Changes: A new season brings with it new hope and new goals, but it also sometimes brings harsh realities. Nearly 50 percent of the Tiger's offense is gone. The biggest reason for the dramatic numbers? Gone are Hobey Baker finalist Simon Lambert (51 points) and Matt Smith (39 points). With Lambert and Smith having blown dodge, the Tigers will be asking a lot of their returning players and freshman. Canadians Mark Cornacchia (Markham Waxers) and Scott Knowles (Surrey Eagles) come aboard as freshman and Dan Ringwald (33 points) and Matt Crowell (22) are the key returnees.
"Matt and Simon lead us with their play and presence last year," Wilson said. "We're going to have to be a more complete team and we we're going to have to use our team speed. Regardless of the departures, we have eight new players and everyone will be able to play." ?
Strength: Team speed and depth. "Our speed and balance will be two key factors for us," Wilson said. "Our other lines can step up. Defense will also play a big role."
Weakness: Experience. "We're going to relay on some of the newcomers to make us a better team," Wilson said. "It will depend on how quickly new guys adapt to college game. The earliest going is the toughest. There's so much emotion in the season, you can be beat early if your not ready to start."
Outlook: Is the third year the charm? After a memorable second season in the league, RIT will be hard-pressed to make an even better run without Smith and Lambert. However, the Tigers still have enough to be a considered a legitimate threat. "I feel very good because of our returning players," Wilson said. "Our league keeps getting better and better. It makes it tougher but we have high expectations."
Predicted Order of Finish: 4th.
Coach: Shaun Hannah
2007-08 Record: 14-11-3 (16-19-3)
How they finished: After an up-and-down season, Sacred Heart headed into the postseason eager to get to its second league championship game. Yet after surviving Connecticut in a best-of-three series, the Pioneers fell to Mercyhurst 4-1 in the conference's play in game. Before losing, Sacred Heart was 9-1-1 in its last 11 games against Mercyhurst.
Changes: Alexandre Parent graduated with 40 points last season and 141 career points, and Scott Marachesi also moves on after an 11-point season. Beyond those two losses and senior defenseman Nick Kary, the Pioneers bring back the calvary for another shot at a NCAA tournament berth.
Strength: Offense. Sacred Heart scored 3.25 goals per game last season and was first in the conference. With senior Bear Trapp set to take over for Parent, the Pioneers shouldn't take a big plunge in the goal department. "We got depth in scoring, I feel good about a lot of our pieces," Hannah said. "We really have to stick to our game plan and that takes everybody's commitment."
Weakness: Winning on the road. The Pioneers were 5-13-1 on the road last season. "We've always been a good team at home, but last year we were inconsistent on the road," Hannah said. "I think to be a good team we have to be more consistent and be better on the road."
Outlook: The postseason hasn't exactly been magical the past couple years for the Pioneers. Still, they've been in the top five each of the last five seasons and at some point they have to breakthrough. Could the magic happen in senior Bear Trapp's historic (he's set to break the league's career scoring record) final season? "We stack up well [against the rest of the league] I think," Hannah said. "We're good hockey team and we have a lot of the pieces of the puzzles you need. We've been right there on the cusp before. Our guys are motivated to get it done [this season]."
Predicted Order of Finish: 3rd.