Atlantic Hockey Final Four Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., hosts the Atlantic Hockey Association Final Four this weekend. In the first semifinal on Friday afternoon, top seed RIT faces Canisius, and the evening game pits defending champion Air Force against Sacred Heart.
The league's championship — and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament — will be on the line on Saturday night. The only team remaining that has been to the NCAAs before is Air Force, which defeated Michigan in the NCAAs last year.
No. 1 RIT vs. No. 5. Canisius
A year ago, RIT's dreams of an NCAA berth ended in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals, with a 5-4 overtime loss to Mercyhurst. Now, after running away with the regular season title by earning a league-record 45 points and a 22-5-1 conference record, the Tigers will look to continue the nation's best winning streak — eight games — as they search for their first Atlantic Hockey tournament title.
Included in RIT's current winning streak is a pair of wins against Canisius at the end of February, with the Tigers sweeping a home weekend series with the Golden Griffins by scores of 8-0 and 5-4.
"We've been confident all year," said RIT head coach Wayne Wilson. "As you play and have a certain level of success, you gain confidence. We've been down this path before, getting to our final four. And we've been disappointed in the past. We're very optimistic, confident in our abilities. But we're also guarded, and we know we're going to have to play our very best against a very good Canisius team."
Highlighting that Canisius team is arguably the top player in Atlantic Hockey. Junior forward Cory Conacher has amassed 53 points in 34 games this season, good for second best in the nation behind Maine's Gustav Nyquist. Conacher — in facing the nation's fourth-best defense in RIT — will be looking for his first goal of the postseason, though he assisted on the quarterfinal series-clinching goal last weekend, as the Golden Griffins topped Mercyhurst.
"Cory has been outstanding," said Canisius coach Dave Smith. "He gets the attention every game because he's got dynamic skills. It's one thing to get points. It's another thing to get points when the other teams are keying on you. And we've seen that for the last two to three months, where every team's focus has been to get in Cory Conacher's face. He has played hard, and he has played through everything that everybody has presented to him."
Friday's matinee represents the Golden Griffins' first appearance in the Atlantic Hockey Final Four since 2004. Alongside the offense of Conacher are senior Josh Heidinger, who has recorded 22 points in his last 11 games, and junior Vincent Scarsella, who enters the weekend with 98 career points.
Said Smith, "We're looking forward to having a lot of fun. A lot of our seniors have put a lot of emphasis and pressure on getting [to Rochester], which means that we've improved each of the last four years. We've increased our win total and now reached the league's final four. So it feels great."
Countering for RIT is an impressively balanced scoring attack featuring 14 players with double-digit point totals this year, including leading scorer Cameron Burt.
Burt, a sophomore, is also one of three Tiger forwards with seven power play goals this season, helping pace an RIT man-advantage unit that has successfully converted over 20 percent of its opportunities this season. Last weekend, in a first-round sweep of Connecticut, RIT tallied three power play goals.
Said Wilson, "Cameron's been an offensive catalyst for us all season long. He's a dynamic one-on-one player — very elusive and tough to get a hold of. He's been good from the start of the season."
Also turning heads in the league has been RIT freshman defenseman Chris Tenev, who has a six-game point-scoring streak and leads the team with a plus-30 rating. Tenev has taken only two minor penalties all season.
"He's exceeded what a typical freshman coming in does," agreed Wilson. "He's been outstanding for us, offensively and defensively. A lot of the credit goes to [30-point scorer] Dan Ringwald, a senior defenseman for us, who's taken him under his wing. The two of them playing together have been outstanding. They're a real force when they're on the ice."
No. 2 Sacred Heart vs. No. 3 Air Force
Air Force and Sacred Heart have already played one another four times this season, with each team earning weekend sweeps on home ice. And although Sacred Heart will be the higher seed on Friday night, the Falcons are the three-time defending league champions and are a gaudy 13-1 all-time in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs.
In earning the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons, Air Force has made noise on the NCAA stage, most memorably by defeating Michigan in the first round last year.
Each of the Falcons' last two seasons have ended with overtime losses in the NCAA tournament — to Miami in 2008 and to Vermont in a 2OT thriller in 2009. Still, thoughts of seasons past are far from the minds of the Air Force coaching staff and players as they head to Rochester.
Said Air Force coach Frank Serratore, "We're enthused, and we're excited, but obviously we know that it's a one-and-done situation right now. So it really doesn't matter what you've done in the past. It's about getting the job done. Last year's team was last year's team. This is 2010, and we have a completely different mix of players. They're going to find their way through their tournament just like the other teams did."
Key pieces to the last three Atlantic Hockey championship teams have been Falcons senior forward Jacques Lamoureux and senior netminder Andrew Volkening.
"[Volkening] is the backbone of our team, and he has been for a long time," said Serratore, who in his 13th year at the helm is the winningest coach in Atlantic Hockey history. "If it weren't for him, we wouldn't have earned home ice in the playoffs, we wouldn't have finished in the top four in the league, and without him, we wouldn't have gotten by Army last Saturday night.
"He's the best player ever to come out of the Air Force hockey program."
Continued Serratore, "And [Lamoureux] is a goal scorer. He's got a very unique skill set. It's not often when you have a player where you can say that the very best thing he does is score goals, but that's what Jacques does. When he's got the puck on his stick at the top of the circle, the red light usually comes on"
Now, Air Force — boasting, by the way, the top penalty killing unit in the nation at 88 percent — finds itself just two wins away from making a return trip to the NCAAs.
The first team standing in the way is Sacred Heart, which boasts two of the best forwards in the nation. Senior Nick Johnson's 52 points is third-best in the country, and classmate Dave Jarman is tied for 8th in the nation with 1.33 points per game.
The Pioneers struggled in the season's early going, finishing the 2009 portion of their schedule with a 4-8-2 record. However, rookie coach C.J. Marottolo, the league's Coach of the Year, and his crew rebounded strongly after the New Year, with a 17-3-2 record in the second half of the season.
"We're very tough and resilient," Marottolo said. "These kids have had a lot of things thrown at them.
"The two games in our place (against Air Force) in early January, were close games, up and down. We pulled away late in the second game. ... The two games we played out there at the end of the year, that wasn't our best showing of the year. You try to find positive in those games. Maybe we needed that before the playoffs, to get a loss, because we had a good run. If it works out, in hindsight it's a good thing."
Marottolo acknowledges that the road to a championship goes through Air Force, because of its history of winning this tournament.
"They have the experience, the guys on their team that have been there," Marottolo said. "And they won a game in the NCAA tournament.
"We're very aware of (Lamoureux), and they have other players we're very aware of. But our staff is big believers in playing to our strenghts. If we do what we do well ... I don't want to change our game to suit another team, because then we're not playing to our strength."