A changing of the guard may be in order in Atlantic Hockey. Rochester Institute of Technology posted a record 45-point season and carries a six-game win streak and a lot of confidence into the playoffs. However, three-time playoff champion Air Force is still in the hunt as a potent three seed.
RIT wrapped up its third regular-season title in four seasons. Sacred Heart, with rookie coach C.J. Marottolo, made one of the best improvements in league history, moving up 14 points and six places to finish as the runner-up. Air Force got off to an 0-4-0 start and rode its roller-coaster ways into a .500 record. Mercyhurst, too, languished at the outset with a 2-9-1 start but managed to make some headway in league play to finish fourth.
Canisius saw only a one-game improvement to grab the five seed. Army secured the six seed again with the same 10-12-6 record. Seventh-seeded Holy Cross knocked off American International, 4-2, in a playoff opener. Bentley couldn’t overcome its considerable graduation losses, falling to eighth and then losing to No. 9 Connecticut, 2-1, in a playoff opener.
Most coaches in Atlantic Hockey sing the praises of the junior circuit, about how the talent gap is closing between top and bottom, and how competitive the league has become, but the numbers don’t quite bear that out as the seventh season comes to a close.
The best form of comparisons are the head-to-head matchups with the other five leagues, and in that case Atlantic Hockey took a major step back this season. The league managed only eight non-conference wins out of 61 contests (8-48-5), a drop-off of five victories over the previous season. Only half of the 10 teams managed at least one non-league win, with Bentley, Canisius and Sacred Heart managing two apiece. Heck, the league’s standard bearer – regular-season champion RIT – went 0-for-6, defending champ Air Force went 0-for-6 and perennial challenger Mercyhurst went 0-for-8.
The league is satisfied with Rochester serving as its tourney host and will remain there through 2011. A national television home for the tournament finals has not been hammered out, but there have been whispers of a future deal – CBS College Sports may look for a replacement now that College Hockey America is folding, and Versus is looking to add sports properties.
The long-awaited addition of College Hockey America refugees Niagara and Robert Morris raises membership to a dozen teams next season, and should give the league a nice jump-start.
RIT has proven itself as a regular-season title contender, with three titles and one runner-up finish in four seasons. The Tigers made it a bit more convincing this year, winning the league by 10 points, or by a full five games if you like the baseball analogy. However, RIT has been ousted in the semifinal round the past two seasons.
The offense is not as potent as last season but the nation’s fourth-ranked defense picked up the slack to support Jared DeMichiel in goal. Dan Ringwald is a proven all-star defenseman, and he broke in freshman Chris Tanev very impressively. The Tigers spread the scoring wealth, with Cameron Burt (13 goals), Andrew Favot (11), Ringwald (10) and Tyler Brenner (10) leading the way.
The Tigers have lost just three games – all by one goal – in the last two months. What’s particularly promising is how RIT played down the stretch, going 7-1-0 in February against four clubs in the upper division: Sacred Heart (1-1-0), Air Force, Army and Canisius (2-0-0 each).
This might just be the year that RIT breaks through, and it doesn’t hurt to have a “home” crowd at Blue Cross Arena for the finals.
THE GATE CRASHER
It seems almost silly to call the three-time defending champions from Air Force a gate crasher but these Falcons are not the same team that won the 2009 title, that knocked off Michigan in the opening round of the NCAAs and battled well into a second overtime before losing to Vermont. It is still a good team, with a former Hobey Baker finalist, the top playoff goalie in league history and a senior corps that has won three playoff titles as a number five, three and one seed.
Any team that has 20-goal scorer Jacques Lamoureux has to be taken seriously. Matt Fairchild has probably played more games (153) than anyone else in league history and is three points shy of 100 for his career. The team, no doubt, took a hit when Jeff Hajner had to leave the lineup for medical issues in mid-February.
Andrew Volkening has lost just one league playoff contest since backstopping Air Force to victory in the 2007 finals. With 67 wins and a 2.21 career goals against, he is the most effective goalie this league has produced.
INCH’s ALL-ATLANTIC HOCKEY TEAM
F – Jacques Lamoureux, Air Force
The junior can see clearly with 20-20 vision – that’s 20 goals and 20 assists. There are 21 players in the nation who have reached 20 goals, and only a dozen have just as many assists. A dozen of Lamoureux’s goals have come on the power play. True, his numbers are down from his eye-popping 33 goals of a year ago but he remains a top scoring threat.
F – Nick Johnson, Sacred Heart
Johnson is tied for second in national goal scoring (25) with Bobby Butler of New Hampshire and Broc Little of Yale, trailing only Chase Polacek of RPI (26). Johnson leads all those snipers with 23 assists, and he ranks fourth in points per game (1.41). Johnson has been clutch with seven game-winners.
F – Cory Conacher, Canisius
The junior has made big strides in his third season. With 20 goals and 29 assists, he ranks second in the nation in points per game (1.53). He leads his team in both categories. Seven of his goals have come on the power play and five went for game-winners. A year ago, Conacher posted 12 goals and 23 assists.
D – Dan Ringwald, RIT
The senior ranks second in the league in defenseman scoring with 28 points, goals with 10, and assists with 18. Six of his goals have come on the power play, more than doubling his overall goal scoring last season. He is a plus-17 at even strength. Ringwald does a great job of staying out of the penalty box, with only six infractions.
D – Carl Hudson, Canisius
The senior leads the league in defensemen scoring with 32 points, goals with 13, and assists with 19. His point total ranks 12th in the league. Hudson remains a force on the power play with 10 goals, and 30 of his 43 career goals have come on the power play. Hudson improved his plus-minus from a minus-11 as a junior to a plus-one as a senior. One knock on his game, though, is his propensity for penalties, averaging one per contest.
G – Jared DeMichiel, Rochester Institute of Technology
Maybe playing time and improved performance go hand-in-hand. With the graduation of Louis Menard, DeMichiel saw the bulk of action for the Tigers, playing 90 percent of the minutes. He dropped his goals against from 2.70 to 2.11, and his save percentage went up from .905 to .920 – both numbers lead Atlantic Hockey. Nationally, his goals against ranks eighth and his saves percentage is 13th. His current goals against would rank fourth all-time in league history. Only Panthers draft pick Marc Cheverie of Denver has more wins (22 to 21) than DeMichiel.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Former Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah decided to resign his job in early September, and the school went into an instant scramble to find his replacement. The school actually hired former Yale assistant C.J. Marottolo AFTER the Pioneers held their first exhibition game. Marottolo took over a team that lost it starting goalie, half of its defense corps and its two leading scorers from last season. In one of the most incredible turnarounds in league history, Marottolo led Sacred Heart to an impressive 18-12-4 overall record and second-place finish in the regular season at 16-9-3 – that’s an improvement of 14 points over 2008-09.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR and BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER
Sacred Heart needed to replace 31 goals from six skaters who graduated, and Nick Johnson practically filled that void by himself. Johnson opened the season with a pair of two-goal efforts. He has scored at least one goal in 20 games, and only played seven contests where he didn’t produce a point. His 25 goals ranks fifth-best in league history, trailing only Jacques Lamoureux (33), Dave Borelli of Mercyhurst (28), Matt Smith of RIT (27) and Tyler McGregor of Holy Cross (26). One Atlantic Hockey coach said, “Hands down, Nick Johnson is the best player in the league.”
Johnson made the shift from center to right wing, and his numbers exploded once he was paired with great playmaker Dave Jarman. Johnson does a great job getting in front of the net to produce goals. Johnson produced only three goals in a junior season shortened to 24 games (he missed the last six weeks of the regular season before returning for the playoffs).
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Eric DeLong of Sacred Heart leads a good cast of Atlantic Hockey rookies. DeLong leads the freshmen with 30 points. His 13 goals ranks second among the rookies. DeLong has contributed points in 20 games and goals in 11 contests. He worked his way onto Sacred Heart’s top power play unit, and he takes key faceoffs for the Pioneers.