Atlantic Hockey Watch List
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
5 Things to Watch
Last year, Atlantic Hockey sent two teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time in league history, as regular-season champion Niagara earned an at-large berth, while Canisius won the conference tournament. The fact that the seventh-place team in the regular season took the tournament crown wasn’t even considered all that shocking. The conference races were close all year long.
This year, the league looks to be even tighter. The coaches couldn’t even achieve consensus on the preseason favorite. Niagara earned the most points in the AHA coaches poll, but Mercyhurst earned more first-place votes. And even Mercyhurst tied for second with Air Force, while Canisius also earned first-place votes.
“I think any one of maybe nine teams can win a championship this year,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “The parity in the league has probably never been better than what it is this year.”
Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst and RIT all bring back most of last year’s top lines. Niagara saw some turnover, and loses top scorer Ryan Murphy for the first half of the year. Those teams appear to be the top five in the league, but with so much parity, all any one team needs is a few players to step up to compete for the league’s crown.
Who will build off last year’s success?
Niagara made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2008, and Canisius made its first-ever appearance. Meanwhile, Mercyhurst came within one victory of the national bracket, falling to Canisius in the AHA finals.
Of those schools, Mercyhurst appears most prepared to make another run, as the Lakers return eight of their top 10 scorers, including Matthew Zay, who led the league in conference scoring with 11 goals and 23 assists. Canisius also looks primed for the new season, thanks to the return of Kyle Gibbons, who finished the season ranked 12th in the nation in total scoring (43 points) and eighth in goals (21).
Niagara and Robert Morris both have some holes to fill in the crease if they want to replicate last year’s success. The Purple Eagles should be better fit to deal with a goaltending change, however, as much of their scoring and defense comes back to defend its regular season championship. The Colonials will find it much more difficult to replace star goaltender Eric Levine, considering they also lost key players on both offense and defense.
Turnover in the crease is a consistent theme across Atlantic Hockey, especially the teams pegged as favorites to begin the season. Niagara lost Carsen Chubak, who signed a contract with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms. Chubak was virtually unbeatable in the crease, especially over the first 15 games of the season, when he posted a 0.99 goals-against average and a .970 save percentage.
Mercyhurst, RIT, Robert Morris and Sacred Heart will all see some changes in net this season as well. With the offensive firepower across Atlantic Hockey, these teams may find themselves in trouble early if their new goalies experience a learning curve.
The only schools that bring back star power at goalie are Air Force and Canisius. The Falcons return Jason Torf for his senior year, while the Golden Griffins feature Tony Capobianco in the crease. Capobianco set four different school records last year, including 1,256 total saves – which was the 12th most in NCAA history, and the most since 1989.
Early season excitement
Atlantic Hockey schools have a chance to make some noise in early October, as many schools hit the road to face some tough competition across the country.
On Oct. 11, Mercyhurst heads to Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis to play Minnesota in the Ice Breaker tournament, while Army will help Penn State inaugurate the Pegula Ice Arena. Also that night, Sacred Heart heads to Massachusetts-Lowell and Air Force flies up north to play Alaska in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.
The next night, the action shifts to western New York, as Atlantic Hockey’s two Buffalo schools — Canisius and Niagara — square off in perhaps the league’s best rivalry, and RIT faces Michigan in Rochester. Also, Holy Cross heads to Boston University.
Over just two days in October, Atlantic Hockey schools have a chance to knock off some of the best teams in the country and play spoiler in some early-season showcases. This could get Atlantic Hockey on the national radar while the season’s hockey excitement is just beginning.
Multiple teams in the NCAAs?
If they do capitalize on those early-season opportunities, Atlantic Hockey may be in position to earn multiple NCAA tournament berths again. Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl pointed out that the ECAC proved anything can happen when a league sends a few schools to the tournament, as Yale defeated Quinnipiac in the national championship game.
“We can take a lot of positives from seeing the ECAC last year, they throw two teams in the final. But a few years ago they only had one team in the tournament,” Pearl said.
This success is already leading to more exposure, as CBS Sports announced that it would air two AHA contests nationally this season.
“With the programs we have and the support behind them, as everybody gets better it raises our profile nationally and we’ll continue to get better,” Pearl said.
5 Players to watch
Kyle Gibbons, Senior, Forward, Canisius ... Gibbons set the Atlantic Hockey Tournament record last year with 12 points (four goals and eight assists), earning him tournament MVP honors. That strong finish came after a tough start to the season, as he went scoreless during the first seven games before coach Dave Smith sat him out for a game. But this summer he spent time at the New Jersey Devils’ development camp.
“He got off to a bad start, we sat him for a game,” Smith said. “He’s an elite talent, can absolutely fire the puck, has a wonderful IQ and his compete level is very high. When we got to the tournament, he definitely opened some eyes.”
With a strong schedule and many returning players, Gibbons could help lead the Golden Griffins to their second NCAA Tournament berth.
Ryan Murphy, Senior, Forward, Niagara ... Murphy led the Purple Eagles with a point-per-game average (15 goals and 21 assists). This year, he will sit out until January thanks to a DWI arrest, so all eyes will be upon him when he returns.
“He’s our leading scorer, the guy we’re going to lean on to lead this team offensively,” Burkholder said. “The team will go the way Ryan goes.”
So that could mean trouble early on. Niagara had trouble scoring in two season-opening losses to Clarkson.
Jason Torf, Senior, Goaltender, Air Force ... Torf played 37 games last year for the Falcons, where he posted a 2.36 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. This came after a breakout sophomore year for Torf, when he finished fourth in the nation in goals-against with 1.73. That year, he led the Falcons to the Atlantic Hockey championship and earned tournament MVP honors before falling to Boston College in the NCAA tournament. Air Force Coach Frank Serratore said Torf’s strength is in his consistency.
“You always know what you’re going to get with Jason,” Serratore said. “Other goalies maybe get more work and are seen as having a higher talent level but Jason is underrated. Knowing what you’re going to get from a guy every night lets you get a lot more sleep as a coach.”
Cody Wydo, Junior, Forward, Robert Morris ... After finishing the 2012-13 season tied for eighth in the country in goal-scoring with 21, Wydo finds himself in a leadership role for the Colonials. The Colonials face some tough losses at every position, particularly in net. Wydo will need to help build some momentum for his team if Robert Morris wants to repeat some of last year’s success. He might even be able to spark some offense on the penalty kill, as he scored three short-handed goals last season.
Wydo also spent some time at the Devils development camp this summer, and coach Derek Schooley sees promise for the upcoming season.
“He had a good summer. He got stronger, had a good experience at Devils prospect camp, and he’s ready to take the next step,” Schooley said. “I think this might be the year you see Cody really break out and become a notable name in Atlantic Hockey.”
Matthew Zay, Junior, Forward, Mercyhurst ... Matthew Zay became the first Laker to lead Atlantic Hockey in conference scoring with 11 goals and 23 assists in league contests. He finished the season with 39 points, including four power-play goals and one short-handed goal.
Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said Zay’s power forward style of play should help position the Lakers to get to the top of the standings this year and potentially earn the school’s first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
“He shoots the puck great, goes to the net, finds rebounds and plays with a bit of snarl,” Gotkin said.