Atlantic Hockey Championship Preview
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
For the first time since 2012, the top four seeds all advanced to the final weekend of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament. That was also the last time the No. 1 seed actually won the tournament. This year, Canisius holds that top spot, but will face off with Rochester regular Robert Morris. The other semifinal features the two service academies — Army and Air Force.
Some of the nation’s best goalies will head to Rochester this weekend. The top three goalies, in terms of save percentage, play for Canisius, Army and Robert Morris. Air Force’s goalie also boasts a goals-against average under 2. It will take some patience and skills to get on the board and earn a bid to the NCAAs. Army is the only team here which has never done so.
No. 1 Canisius vs. No. 4 Robert Morris
Records: Canisius (21-10-7, 18-4-6 AHA), Robert Morris (21-11-4, 15-10-3 AHA)
Canisius took care of business last weekend at home against its cross-town rival Niagara. The Golden Griffins shut out the Purple Eagles on Friday night, 3-0, and closed out the series with a 2-1 win Saturday night.
Canisius goaltender Charles Williams pushed his save percentage to .946 and is tied for the most shutouts with six. The depth of the Griffins was on display, too; five different players scored goals.
“I thought we got better as the weekend went on,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said.
They’ll need to continue that trend if they want to knock off Robert Morris. The Colonials will make their fourth straight appearance in Rochester. They won it all in 2014.
RMU continued its high-scoring ways, sweeping Holy Cross last weekend at Neville Island, winning 6-3 on Friday night and 3-2 on Saturday. With four points on the weekend, Brady Ferguson is now sixth in the nation with 55 (21 goals, 34 assists). Goaltender Francis Marotte sits in third nationally with a .933 save percentage.
Colonials coach Derek Schooley credited his team’s cohesiveness when explaining how they’ve put things together down the stretch.
"Our chemistry has been outstanding and our leaders have done a great job, it's a joy to coach," he said. "This is one of those seasons, and you don't have many of them, that you don't want it to end.”
While no stranger to playoff hockey, the Colonials have been a bit of surprise this season after losing some key players from last year’s first-place team.
"We were picked sixth and everybody thought we were going to be a team that was rebuilding," Schooley said. "We never wanted to take a step back. Our seniors wouldn't allow it."
Canisius and Robert Morris haven’t played since October, where the Colonials took a win and a tie.
No. 2 Air Force vs. No. 3 Army
Records: Air Force (24-9-5, 19-6-3 AHA), Army (18-13-5, 15-10-3 AHA)
The two service academies wills square off for the fifth time this season, with Air Force winning three of the first four. The Falcons look to earn their sixth trip to the NCAA tournament and first since 2012. Meanwhile, Army is still looking for its first-ever bid.
The Black Knights earned a spot in the semifinals after defeating Mercyhurst in three games last weekend. The win was bittersweet for head coach Brian Riley — who made it one-step closer to the tournament, but saw his sons’ chances slip away. Brian’s two sons are both Lakers. Jack Riley is the senior captain for Mercyhurst, but the elder Riley’s team overcame a 3-1 deficit in the decisive game of the quarterfinal series to end Mercyhurst’s season.
“The first couple times was kinda neat coaching against them, but it's really hard now,” Brian Riley said. “And this weekend, oh, what a tough series. I was so happy for our guys when we won, and here I'm hugging my son afterwards and seeing the disappointment in his eyes that his season just ended. It was really hard.”
In net, goalie Parker Gahagen is second in the nation with a .933 save percentage, but Riley said he re-tweaked a previous injury and left in the middle of the third period of Sunday’s game. Cole Bruns entered the game and made the final 9 saves for the Black Knights. Riley said Gahagen is day-to-day for Friday’s game.
“That's twice that Cole Bruns has had to come in,” Riley said. “He had to do it against Holy Cross when we were leading by a goal with five minutes left, and he had to do it against Mercyhurst (Sunday) with eight minutes to go when we're trying to advance to our league championship, and he did a great job. There was a lot of pressure, and they were coming at us pretty good.”
On the other side of the ice, Air Force makes another appearance in the semifinals after winning the battle of the Falcons — defeating Bentley in two games last weekend in Colorado Springs, 4-0 and 2-1. Goaltender Shane Starrett dropped his goals-against average to 1.99.
Evan Feno scored four points on the weekend, including setting up the series-clincher early in the third period of Saturday’s game. But he also threw a hit that earned him an ejection and a five-minute major as the clock wound down — forcing the Falcons on their heels as they withstood the attack from Bentley.
“We have a very resilient group,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “We had to overcome some adversity. We have taken a five-minute major in each of our last three games and you just can’t keep rolling the dice like that. But we were able to find a way to get it done.”
But Serratore knows the competition will be even tougher this weekend.
“We will have to be better in Rochester and we can be.”