Battle for the Atlantic
Conference's Growing Strength Makes for Fierce Regular Season
by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Writer
Four years ago, Air Force and RIT were crowned Atlantic Hockey Co-Champions with 20 wins and 42 points, five points ahead of third place Mercyhurst. Fast forward to last season and Air Force needed just 15 wins to claim the championship outright and that same five points separated first from seventh.
“I think Atlantic Hockey has become probably the most balanced league in the country,” Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl said. “Last year, two points separated the top five teams. It’s crazy.”
In this season’s preseason coaches poll, Air Force ranked first with 112 votes. After Air Force, four teams ranked within 14 points of each other.
“I think there’s eight teams that have a legitimate chance to win our league this year,” Air Force Coach Frank Serratore said.
Among those teams are Serratore’s Falcons, Niagara, Mercyhurst, Bentley, RIT and Holy Cross. These six teams were the top six in Atlantic Hockey last year and finished within three points of each other.
“You’ve got to be really special to separate yourself from the pack,” RIT Coach Wayne Wilson said.
Air Force and RIT are not strangers to finding success in Atlantic Hockey, combining to win the last four regular season titles and the last five tournament titles. Which is why, at least in Serratore’s eyes, the parity is coming from the bottom of the standings.
“Atlantic Hockey has continued to get deeper and deeper,” Serratore said. “I don’t know how much better the top teams are every year than they have been but the bottom teams have improved immensely.”
That includes Holy Cross, Bentley, and Mercyhurst, who all have emerged again as Atlantic Hockey powers after several down seasons.
“To win every night you got to do an awful lot of right things, play hard, and even get a couple bounces,” Mercyhurst Coach Rick Gotkin said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Add in Niagara and Robert Morris, who entered the league just two seasons ago and already adding to the competitiveness, it makes for one tough schedule where every point matters. That’s something Serratore and Air Force know very well.
Last season, Air Force trailed Niagara 3-1 in the third period. Air Force managed to score twice and tie the game. That one point proved to be very valuable.
“That point that we got and the point they didn’t get was the difference in us winning the league and winning it outright,” Serratore said.
And because the value of points has skyrocketed in Atlantic Hockey, the games in October and November can make a huge difference come March.
“You never know when that point is going to come,” Gotkin said.
And because of that, teams can not afford to take a night off or even take a play off.
“We’re a league now that if you don’t play well you’re not going to win,” Wilson said. “You can’t have an 80 percent effort or execution and win games. Everyone’s too good for that.”
While Atlantic Hockey has been getting better and better each year, it’s not as if the league hasn’t had good teams in the past. In 2006, Pearl and Holy Cross knocked off Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Four years later, RIT advanced all the way to the Frozen Four.
“The league’s always been pretty good,” Pearl said. “I think its just gotten more notoriety, which is great.”
Even though it’s been a couple years since RIT’s magical run through the NCAA tournament, Atlantic Hockey teams have still been making noises against some top teams. Ferris State, Lake Superior, Boston University, Cornell, and Yale all fell to an Atlantic Hockey team last season.
“The league’s getting better, the players are getting better, the coaches are doing a good job. That’s just the start of it,” Robert Morris Coach Derek Schooley said. “The league is going to continue to grow.”
With a growing league, comes better hockey.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s competitive, great hockey. I think the fans love it,” Gotkin said. “It’s a battle every single game.”