Atlantic Hockey Watch List, 2017-18
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
With new rinks, new coaches and more scholarships, Atlantic Hockey hopes to turn that off-ice momentum into on-ice success.
5 Things to Watch
15 Scholarships for 15 Seasons
Last summer, Atlantic Hockey announced that it would gradually increase the scholarship limit from 14 to 18 players—the maximum allowed—in line with all other college hockey conferences. Commissioner Robert DeGregorio said this would allow the league to remain competitive while also not leaving any members behind.
This season marks the first increase in that plan—as the league will now bump up to 15 scholarships. It’s also the 15th Anniversary season for Atlantic Hockey, which was founded in 2003 with nine members. The league has made waves in recent years, with teams upsetting higher seeds in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, and even a Frozen Four appearance by RIT in 2010.
The scholarship limit will increase by one every year until it hits 18 for the 2020-21 season, and the league’s members hope to see more sustained postseason success when they’re on a level playing field with the rest of the NCAA.
When Atlantic Hockey teams have made postseason runs in the past, many relied on hot goaltending. And in recent years, some of the nation’s top goaltenders called Atlantic Hockey home. Canisius’ Charles Williams stole the show last year—backstopping the Golden Griffins to the regular season championship. His .943 save percentage and 1.82 goals against average earned him a spot as a Top 10 Hobey Baker Award finalist.
In all, four of the top six netminders in terms of save percentage were Atlantic Hockey goalies last season. But Williams and Army’s Parker Gahagen both graduated. Assuming the trend of top goalies continues, who will step in?
Robert Morris’ Francis Marotte is poised for another great year. Additionally, Bentley’s Aidan Pelino finished sixth in the nation, with a .930 save percentage in his freshman year. He’s back in Waltham for his sophomore campaign.
Still, as Williams proved last year, sometimes the biggest stars are the ones overlooked in the preseason. Williams’ Golden Griffins were picked to finish in 9th place. Will we see another goalie steal this show this season?
Air Force’s Major Loss
In a rare move for an athlete at a service academy, Air Force’s star goaltender Shane Starrett left after his sophomore season to sign a professional contract with the Edmonton Oilers. The Flacons were one win away from the Frozen Four last season, and Starrett’s 1.99 goals-against average and .925 save percentage were a big reason why.
Air Force returns all 10 of its top scorers, so the offense shouldn’t be lacking. The Falcons were picked as the preseason favorites by the league’s coaches, but just how far they will go may rely on junior goaltender Billy Christopoulos. He posted a .901 save percentage in eight games played last year.
The Falcons flew to Alaska to start their season last weekend. Head coach Frank Serratore called Christopoulos’ first few games “encouraging” after he backstopped the Falcons to a 3-2 win and a 1-1 tie against the Nanooks—including a breakaway save in the final minute of Saturday night’s tie.
All signs point to a close race between Air Force and Robert Morris.
Bobby Mo’s Quest for Success
Robert Morris earned a spot in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament final rounds each of the past four years—but they’ve only won the title—and the league’s automatic NCAA bid—once, in 2014. The Colonials have lost in the championship game two years in a row.
Last season’s top line of Brady Ferguson, Daniel Leavens and Alex Tonge scored a cumulative 149 points. RMU returns a whopping 21 players this season. Leavens graduated, but Massachusetts-Lowell transfer Michael Louria joins Ferguson and Tonge on the top line.
Francis Marotte will backstop the Colonials after finishing fourth in the nation last season with a .931 save percentage.
So, all the pieces are in place for Robert Morris to make a run toward the postseason. Ferguson knows what is at stake.
"Our team has a lot to prove,” he said.
Never Count Out RIT
RIT earned Atlantic Hockey’s first Frozen Four bid in 2010. The Tigers also knocked out top-seeded Minnesota State in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. But after back-to-back Atlantic Hockey titles, they slipped and finished in 6th last season before being ousted by last-place Niagara in the first round of the playoffs.
"We were a little high on our horse last year (after winning league titles in 2015 and 2016) and were brought back down to earth,” head coach Wayne Wilson said.
The Tigers roster consists of 12 players who were part of at least one championship team, so experience could play a key role. The top three scorers return, and will look to continue the high-scoring ways the Tigers are accustomed to. The Norrish Twins—Brady and Chase—will captain the Tigers from the blue line, and hope to improve on the 3.00 goals given up per game last year, which was middle of the road in Atlantic Hockey.
“We now have to be ready to put the work in to get back to where we want to be—a championship team at the end of this season,” Wilson said.
5 Players to Watch
Brady Ferguson (Robert Morris)
Brady Ferguson netted 24 goals and helped out on 34 more last season, which was 5th best in the nation. He is the current active leading career scorer in the NCAA with 118 total points. The Texas-native is back in Pennsylvania for his senior season and hopes to lead the Colonials to the NCAA Tournament.
His line-mate Daniel Leavens graduated, but Michael Louria will join him and Alex Tonge on the top line. In the Colonials’ overtime loss at Niagara last weekend, Ferguson picked up right where he left off last year, scoring two goals and an assist.
Jordan Himley (Air Force)
If Air Force can overcome the early departure of Shane Starrett, the Falcons’ high powered offense will be a main reason why. Jordan Himley led the Falcons with 22 goals last season, which tied for 10th in the country.
The other 10 cadets that led the Falcons in scoring also return to Colorado Springs. With an unproven goaltender behind them, Himley will need to lead the way again if Air Force wants to make some more noise this season.
Cole Bruns (Army)
Army West Point finds itself in a similar predicament as Air Force. Its star goaltender—Parker Gahagen—graduated, but the top eight scorers return. The top defensemen for the Black Knights also return to West Point.
Cole Bruns looks to fill the spot in the crease left by Gahagen. In his limited playing time last season, Bruns showed promise, posting a .949 save percentage through 140 minutes on the ice. And he already saved 67 shots through the first two games of the season, allowing just one goal in each of Army’s two wins over AIC.
The Black Knights have been knocking on the door in recent years in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament. Bruns’ play in the crease could determine whether they finally break through to earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
Kyle Schmidt (Bentley)
Schmidt led the Falcons with 18 goals last season. And although teammate Max French graduated after scoring 39 points, Schmidt’s Bentley squad has a solid goaltender in Aidan Pelino. With that confidence in his own zone, Schmidt should be free to continue tallying the points for the Falcons.
Bentley finished in the middle of the pack last year, but won a first-round playoff matchup over Sacred Heart before falling to the eventual champions, Air Force. The Falcons will also open up a new rink later this season.
Tommy Muratore (Holy Cross)
Holy Cross only allowed 26.9 shots on goal per game last season. Tommy Muratore’s 55 blocked shots played a large part in that.
Muratore returns to Worcester for his senior campaign. The defender also helped out on 11 goals last season, and netted a game-winner against Mercyhurst. The Crusaders finished in 5th place last season, but fell to Robert Morris in the second round of the playoffs.
Assistant captain Muratore hopes to lead his Crusaders to their first NCAA appearance since their memorable upset over Minnesota in 2006.