Atlantic Hockey Preview
Can Niagara Put a Cap on Magical Season?
by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Writer
For the first time since 2007, Air Force and RIT are not in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals, meaning someone else will represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. Air Force was knocked off by an upstart team at home while RIT fell on the road to favored Niagara in the quarterfinals.
No. 1 Niagara (23-8-5, 20-5-2 AHA) vs No. 7 Canisius (17-18-5, 12-13-2 AHA)
Season series: Niagara won 2-1
It’s the fourth installment of the Battle of the Bridge for Niagara and Canisius. It’s just the second time the two rivals have met in the playoffs, Canisius won 6-3 in the 2010 Atlantic hockey first round. But this time the stakes are higher. The winner gets the opportunity to play in the championship game and a chance to go to the NCAA tournament.
While Niagara won the regular-season series, it doesn’t matter. Canisius has been playing its best hockey of the season at the right time. The Golden Griffins have won six straight, capped off by last weekend’s sweep of Air Force.
“We haven’t played our best hockey on this run, but what we’ve done is we’ve played together more than at any point in the season,” Canisius head coach Dave Smith said. “We’re really seeing that come out in timely scoring and maturity on the ice.”
And it all starts on defense for the Golden Griffins. Since a wild 6-5 victory over RIT on March 1, the Golden Griffins have given up just nine goals in five games. Junior goaltender Tony Capobianco, one of Atlantic Hockey’s best this season, has given up three goals in the three games against Niagara and is one of two goalies who have shut out the Purple Eagles.
“He’s had a wonderful year, not only consistent but a difference maker in most games all year,” Smith said. “Whether it’s been to keep the score tied or protect a one-goal lead, he’s been outstanding.”
At the other end of the ice is another goaltender who has been one of Atlantic Hockey’s best. Carsen Chubak has come back from an injury his freshman season and taken control of the Purple Eagles' net. He was just named a Hobey Baker Award finalist as well. Both Capobianco and Chubak rank in the top five in goals against (Chubak first, Capobianco third) and save percentage (Chubak first, Capobianco fourth.)
Pick: This game will come down to which team can figure out the other goalie first. The Golden Griffins are playing with a ton of confidence after sweeping Air Force on the road last week, while the Purple Eagles aren’t exactly playing their best hockey of the season. It’ll be close but Niagara will pull out the win.
No. 4 UConn (19-13-4, 14-10-3 AHA) vs No. 6 Mercyhurst (18-16-5, 12-11-4 AHA)
Season series: Tied 1-1
This is the second straight year Mercyhurst is making its way to Rochester. Last year it ended with a loss to eventual champion Air Force in the semifinals. This year the Lakers are back with another year of experience and looking for more.
The Lakers are also peaking at the right time. After winning just twice in February, the Lakers only lost in March was Game 2 of the quarterfinals last week at Holy Cross.
“Through adversity comes some good things,” Lakers head coach Rick Gotkin said. “There’s no question there. Our guys have played the right way. We’ve played the right way pretty much all year.”
The Lakers go up against a UConn team that is also peaking. The Huskies are 6-0- 1 in their last seven games and have found the consistency that was missing when these two teams met in January.
“In January we were struggling,” UConn interim head coach Dave Berard said. “We were winning every weekend but we were winning on Friday and losing on Saturday.”
That Friday/Saturday split is exactly how the previous meetings went. The Huskies won 5-4 on Jan. 18, a Friday, while the Lakers won 5-0 on Saturday. And while the two teams combined for 14 goals in the two games, neither coach expects it to happen again.
“I’d be surprised if it was a high scoring game just because we really, other than those games, we really haven’t been in a lot of those,” Gotkin said.
“I would be surprised if either of us beats the other by more than a goal or two because I think both teams are playing really good hockey at this point,” Berard said. “I think its going to be really tight game.”
Pick: The Lakers have the more balanced attack with seven players scoring 10 or more goals. But the Huskies haven’t score less than four goals during their stretch run. This game can easily go either way but the Huskies will move on the championship game.