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March 22, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

New Blood

Atlantic Hockey Tournament Has Different Look This Year

by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Writer

This weekend is the seventh Atlantic Hockey Championship to be held at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. In the previous six years, just two different teams have won the championship: Air Force and RIT.

Air Force and RIT have been the model of consistency in Atlantic Hockey. Both advanced to the semifinals in every year since 2007. Air Force won the title in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. RIT’s lone championship came in 2010, when it made its run to the Frozen Four.

“I can’t say enough about the respect that we have for those two programs and what they have been able to do,” UConn interim head coach Dave Berard said. “Both those programs have been the model for other programs in our league to follow.”

But this year, both were eliminated in the quarterfinals, and for the first time since the two entered Atlantic Hockey, someone else will win the championship. Air Force was the second seed in this year’s tournament but was swept at home by Canisius in the quarterfinals. RIT was swept at Niagara.

“It’s certainly different not seeing Air Force or (RIT),” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin, who has faced Air Force in all three previous trips he has made to Rochester. “They’ve certainly been great teams, still are great teams in our league. That just shows how tight things are from the one spot to easily the 10th, 11th spot in our league.”

This year, only Mercyhurst and Niagara return to Rochester. Mercyhurst fell to Air Force last year while Niagara lost to RIT. UConn made the trip two years ago while Canisius is making its first appearance since 2010.

“I think it speaks to the parity in college hockey but it’s good for our league to have some different blood,” Berard said. “It’s going to make all the other teams in our league that much stronger because they’re going to believe that they can get there.”

Having a new champion this year is a result of the increased competitiveness of the league the last few seasons. Last year, first place and eighth place in the standings were separated by nine points. This year, while Niagara easily won the regular-season title, second place and eighth place were separated by eight points.

The increased competitiveness has been helped by the resurgence of Holy Cross and Mercyhurst the last two years and the addition of Niagara and Robert Morris three years ago.

“There’s a lot of good programs that have good players,” Berard said. “It’s a good thing to see new teams step up and get an opportunity.”

Those new teams include Niagara, UConn and Canisius, all of which have never won an Atlantic Hockey title. Mercyhurst is the only semifinalist this year that has won the title — in 2005.

With Niagara currently 11th in the Pairwise, Atlantic Hockey has the possibility of sending two teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. This only happens if Niagara does not win the championship.

If Atlantic Hockey does get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament, it’ll bring some attention to a league that isn’t in the national spotlight every year..

“I think our league is an extremely competitive league,” Berard said. “I believe it’s extremely underrated. There’s a lot great coaches and a lot of great players that play in Atlantic Hockey that go unnoticed.”

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