Canisius plays, Niagara rests: your guide to the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs
blog by Ben Kirst • March 08, 2013 @ 12:50pm
The bad news: the Golden Griffins (13-18-5 overall, 12-13-2 Atlantic Hockey) suffered through a 3-9-0 meltdown during a crucial midseason AHA stretch run that devastated the team’s shot at earning one of four conference byes into the second round of the postseason tourney.
Were it not for an unlikely two-game sweep of Rochester Institute of Technology in the final weekend of the season that required all of junior forward Kyle Gibbons’ AHA Player of the Week award-winning five points, eighth-seeded Canisius could have fallen as low as 10th in the 12-team conference.
Instead, the Griffs will face Bentley, who began Canisius’ slide on the weekend of Jan. 18-19 when the Falcons took a two-game weekend series in Waltham, Mass.
The story line is quite a bit lighter for Niagara, the Griffs’ archrival to the north. While their league-mates scrambled hectically for playoff position literally into the final minutes of the regular season, the Purple Eagles wrapped up their first AHA title back on Feb. 17.
Currently ranked 15th in the USCHO.com national poll, Niagara cruised to a 20-5-2 record against AHA opponents and easily earned the first-round bye reserved for the top four finishers in the association.
Even if the Purple Eagles falter in the AHA tournament, fumbling its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament—which would not be shocking, given the red-hot play of perennial conference champs Air Force in recent weeks—Head Coach Dave Burkholder’s crew has the 13th-highest PairWise ranking (created to emulate the NCAA selelction metrics) in the country and are 14th in RPI (measuring, in the most simple terms, strength of schedule). These stats, plus the Purple Eagles’ domination of the notoriously looked-down-upon AHA, could be just enough to push Niagara to the 16-team national showdown.
Unfortunately, there is a reason that the AHA is notoriously looked-down-upon: Niagara played the 52nd-toughest schedule among the 59 teams in D-1 hockey. That does not help their case. Best for the Purple Eagles to sweep through the AHA tournament rather than leave it in the hands of the mathematicians.
Since many of you probably didn’t pay super-close attention to the regular season, here’s a quick look at the first round, best-of-three AHA postseason tournament:
No. 12 Sacred Heart (2-28-4, 2-21-4) at No. 5 Robert Morris (18-12-4, 13-11-3)
Season series: RMU 6, Sacred Heart 3; RMU 7, Sacred Heart 4
Overview: Robert Morris has, at times, looked as good as any team in the nation. The Colonials have beaten Quinnipiac (no. 18 in the nation at the time, but currently the top-ranked team in D-1 hockey), a tough Ohio State squad, third-ranked Miami (Ohio) and Atlantic Hockey regular season champ Niagara. RMU has also lost to five of the other seven teams in the opening round of the AHA playoffs and were never able to establish themselves as elite.
The Colonials are a fast-skating, hard-hitting, in-your-face bunch paced on offense by senior forward Adam Brace (13 goals, 25 assists) and sophomore winger Cody Wydo (17 goals, 11 assists). Wydo leads the conference with five game-winning goals. Andrew Blazek, Tyler Hinds and Brendan Jamison are capable defenseman, and goaltender Eric Levine is solid if unspectacular (2.94 goals-against average, .916 save percentage). The team’s downfall has been its tendency to get into shootouts, surrendering over three goals per game, fueled in large part by shaky work killing penalties.
Sacred Heart, on the other hand, is one of the two worst teams in the nation. After careening to a 0-26-2 record, the Pioneers ended the campaign on a 2-2-2 stretch, knocking off decent Holy Cross and Bentley outfits along the way. Senior forward Eric Delong is the most dangerous scorer on the team, collecting 12 goals and 19 assists. Sacred Heart, unfortunately, is second-to-last in the conference in scoring (2.48 goals per game), last in scoring defense, first in penalty minutes, last on the penalty kill and have allowed a whopping 36 more goals than the next-nearest Atlantic Hockey rival.
With all due respect to the Pioneers, expect RMU to cruise in this series. RMU in two.
No. 11 Army (7-20-5, 7-15-5) vs. No. 6 Mercyhurst (14-15-5, 12-11-4)
Season series: Army 1, Mercyhurst 1; Mercyhurst 8, Army 0
Overview: Army was actually a nice story for the first two months of the season, surprising with a 6-3-2 conference record through Dec. 30. Then came the new year, and after a 5-0 home victory over Robert Morris on Jan.4, the Black Knights would crash to an 0-12-3 finish in Atlantic Hockey play. Still, the seven wins were an improvement over the 4-23-7 campaign in 2011-12, and no one expected much out of the West Point bunch this season. This is a very young team—11 freshmen played double-digit games.
Senior forward Andy Starczewski was the Black Knights’ top scorer with 10 goals and 15 assists while senior defenseman Cheyne Rocha (a one-time Rhodes Scholar candidate) anchored the back line. Army was abysmal on special teams, finishing last on the penalty kill and second-to-last on the power play in AHA competition.
Mercyhurst, like their fellow Pensylvanians at Robert Morris, played hot and cold. The Lakers were 12-6-1 in Atlantic Hockey and well-positioned to grab a top-four finish in conference play before disintegrating in February with an 0-5-3 stretch to end the regular season. Granted, Mercyhurst was not helped by the fact that they played eight games with Robert Morris, RIT, Air Force and Niagara over the final 22 days of the season, but still—that was a mighty collapse.
A high-scoring bunch that does not take many penalties, the Lakers were paced by sophomore forwards Matthew Zay and Ryan Misiak and junior frontliner Daniel O’Donoghue, who combined for 101 points in conference play. Zay led the AHA in points (34) and assists (23), and sophomore forward Chris Bodo tied for the conference title with seven power-play goals. Mercyhurst allowed 24 goals in the first, second and third period in conference games, an odd bit of symmetry. Senior goaltender Max Strang, like RMU’s Levine, was effective but not necessarily outstanding. Strang did finish in the top four among Atlantic Hockey goalies in goals-against average (2.21) and save percentage (.930).
After a brutal end to their regular season, the Lakers will be in no mood for funny business at home. Sorry, Army. Mercyhurst in two
No. 10 Bentley (12-18-3, 10-14-3) vs. No. 7 Canisius (13-18-5, 12-13-2)
Season Series: Bentley 3, Canisius 2 (OT); Bentley 7, Canisius 2
Overview: The Golden Griffins were just a weird team. At times, they looked ready to break away from the pack, like when they posted a six-game unbeaten streak in Novemeber and December, or when they stunned Niagara with a 2-0 victory. At other times—like when they were throttled by Bentley, swept by Air Force and pummeled repeatedly by Robert Morris—you had to wonder if you were watching the same team.
First of all, they had zero consistency in terms of scoring—the Griffs were shut out five times, and did not win a one-goal game until they beat RIT, 6-5, in the final weekend of the season. Yet at the same time, Canisius was consistently one of the best defensive teams in the nation and came within inches of tying a powerful Minnesota squad at Mariucci Arena. Goaltender Tony Capobianco did not get the same press that Air Force netminder Jason Torf or Niagara’s Carson Chubak received (and, in fairness, both of those guys are really good), but he did post a 2.47 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and 12 wins in conference play for a team that averaged 2.63 goals per game in AHA play—and that number is definitely spiked by the team’s 10 goals in its final two games. The defensemen—juniors Ben Danford and Duncan McKellar, sophomores Doug Jessey and Logan Roe, senior Ben Parker and freshman Chris Rumble—are excellent. Offensively, the Griffs have junior Kyle Gibbons (15 goals, 13 assists in AHA play) and senior Preston Shupe (12 goals, 7 assists in AHA Play). It gets pretty murky after that.
Bentley is like a mirror image of Canisius. Whereas the Griffs are 10th in the conference in scoring, the Falcons are fifth. Canisius was third in scoring defense, while Bentley was ninth. Both teams were solid penalty killers, but the Falcons were a bit more consistent on the power play—thanks in large part to sophomore defenseman Steve Weinstein, who racked up 16 points with the man advantage, and Atlantic Hockey’s second-leading scorer, Brett Gensler, who notched 12 of his 33 points with an opponent in the box. Gensler, sophomore Alex Grieve and freshman Adam Gladiuk made up a high-scoring trio that helped power Bentley to a 9-6-1 conference record before five consecutive losses followed soon by a disastrous 0-3-1 late-season meltdown in successive weekends against conference dregs Sacred Heart and American International College effectively crushed their shot at a first-round bye.
With a heavy heart, I just do not have confidence that Canisius—even with home-ice advantage—can hang with Bentley if the Falcons get their offense moving. I see a sad end to a frustrating season for the Griffs. Bentley in three.
No. 9 American International (12-15-6, 9-12-6) vs. No. 8 RIT (13-16-5, 11-12-4)
Season series: RIT 2, American International 2; RIT 3, American International 0
Overview: Not many tears were shed for perennial Atlantic Hockey powerhouse RIT when the Tigers started the season 1-5-2. Little by little, however, RIT clawed their way back into the conference race, a transformation that reached its apex when the Tigers swept a road series at Mercyhurst on the weekend of Feb. 15-16 to cap a 7-4-1 stretch. RIT, however, would lose three of its final four games, including the season-ending sweep at Canisius, relegating the team to the eighth seed.
The Tigers boast the top power play in Atlantic Hockey, connecting at a rate of 26.5 percent, and scored 88 total goals in AHA play on the season—just four behind conference-leading Niagara. The outfit has good offensive depth, led by junior forward Mike Colavecchia’s 25 points against Atlantic Hockey competition, sophomore forward Matt Garbowsky and senior defenseman Chris Saracino’s 24 points apiece and 10 goals from junior forward Adam Mitchell. Saracino and fellow blueliner Greg Noyes are two of the top-three scoring defensemen in the conference.
Junior Josh Watson and sophomore Jordan Ruby have split time in net, both posting save percentages over .904. RIT is 10th in the conference in scoring defense, allowing over 3.3 goals per game, and are middle-of-the-pack on the penalty kill.
Not much was expected out of American International in 2012-13, and for most of the season, the Yellow Jackets delivered. Then—in somewhat stunning fashion—AIC ended the season on a 7-1-3 run that included a three-point weekend over Air Force in Colorado Springs, two wins over Army and a sweep of Bentley. The wins dramatically improved the Yellow Jackets’ playoff position, although not quite enough to earn the team home-ice advantage.
American International does struggle on offense, and junior forwards Blake Peake and Jon Puskar, along with senior forward Adam Pleskach, represent the bulk of the Yellow Jackets’ firepower. They are also on the ice seemingly forever. The group does have the second-best power play unit in Atlantic Hockey, trailing only RIT, and Pleskach has netted five on conference opponents with the man advantage.
The real American International hero, however, is senior goaltender Ben Meisner. Meisner has played 26 games this season and has made 907 saves. That’s 146 more than the next closest AHA goalie—Brandon Komm of Bentley. Despite the onslaught, Meisner is still fourth in the conference in save percentage (.927) and eighth in goals-against average (2.74) even though he has faced nearly four more games’ worth of shots as his Atlantic Hockey counterparts.
An AIC upset led by Meisner would be an awesome story, and the Yellow Jackets come into the series hot. Even though the Tigers have struggled in February, though, it’s tough to see RIT blowing a series at home. It will be close, but the Tigers have too much offense in the end. RIT in three.