We have spent the last 11 days introducing each team from Atlantic Hockey in our first preview series. Atlantic Hockey is a league that last season was built on strong goaltending at the top of the league and has many top scorers returning to their teams this season. Even with the scholarship limit in the league being raised it is still hard to picture Atlantic Hockey being more than a one bid team for the NCAAs, with that team winning the playoffs. The playoffs are a tough thing to predict, especially with single elimination games but we still will predict how we see the regular season standings shaking out in Atlantic Hockey this season. Follow past the jump to have a good laugh and discussion at what will surely be our wildly inaccurate picks.
We have reached the last team to preview in the Atlantic Hockey Conference, the reigning regular season champion Canisius Griffins. After years of being a bottom of the league to middle of the pack type team, Canisius has found some success since moving into the HARBORCenter as their home, a joint venture gift from the Pegula family and Buffalo Sabres. This commitment to a state of the art facility with the increased scholarship limit in Atlantic Hockey had helped Canisius recruit better under coach Dave Smith.
This reached a peak in 2016-17 with the Griffins winning their first Conference Regular Season Championship in program history. Canisius will have two huge assets to replace in 2016-17 replacing coach Dave Smith (now at RPI) and Hobey Baker Finalist goaltender Charles Williams. This season for Trevor Large, a 1st time head coach, will be a challenge as the Griffins try to match their season of a year ago.
We begin the preview today with a note from the editor, as I will always be impartial on this here blog but my cousin is a member of the Air Force Falcons. Kyle Haak, who will be a junior forward this season, is my cousin which I am incredibly proud of but also benefits me in writing this preview. Just like MSU has been my lifetime team affording me more knowledge of the Spartans, following Air Force these last two seasons has given me more knowledge than I ever had about Atlantic Hockey.
Last season was an incredibly special season for the Falcons, possibly the best season for an Atlantic Hockey team since RIT made their magical run to the Frozen Four in 2010. The 27 wins for Air Force last year was the best since 2008-09, a year when Air Force also won a 1st round NCAA game against a team from Michigan (UM in 20009, Western Michigan last season). The Falcons, who had a chance to win the regular season title on the last game of the year before losing to Sacred Heart, made a run in the league tournament to secure an NCAA bid. An out of conference win over Boston College and ties against Ohio State and Western Michigan on the road had played the Falcons to the bubble of an at-large berth to the tournament. The Falcons even played Denver to a one goal loss last season.
The Falcons return an incredibly tight and special junior class this season that hit their stride last season. The Falcons will have chances out of conference to pick up key pairwise points against Bemidji State and Denver but like last year will probably need an Atlantic Hockey Playoff Championship to return to the NCAA Tournament. What looked like a clear favorite last April, quickly turned into a foggy future when super goaltender Shane Starrett signed an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers, foregoing his final two years of eligibility. Air Force will still be in the mix for the top of the league but will have more questions to answer to repeat as champions.
Last season for the Army Black Knights was a huge success compared to recent results as for the first time since winning the Atlantic Hockey regular season crown in 2007-08, the Black Knights finished with a winning record (18-14-5). Led by a program changing talent in net, Parker Gahagen, the Black Knights boasted the 3rd best team defense in the country allowing just 2.11 goals per game. Despite putting up a 2.00 goals against average (6th nationally) and a .934 save percentage (2nd nationally) Gahagen was still relegated to 2nd Team All-Conference which shows you the goaltending depth this league had last season.
The challenge this season for Army will be holding onto their place in the league standings, with Robert Morris and RIT set to improve behind them, all while losing a true leader in net. Was Gahagen a product of an excellent system that can translate to a new starter in net or is Army set to tumble down the Atlantic Hockey leader board? This is the biggest question for the Black Knights heading into the new season.
Robert Morris has been the ideal of consistency since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2010-11. After no winning seasons in the now-defunct College Hockey America, the Colonials worst record in seven seasons of play in the AHA has been 17-17-5. However, for as consistent as the Colonials have been in the regular season, including back to back regular season titles in 2014-16, they have made the NCAA tournament just once in 2013-14.
Derek Schooley, the only coach in program history, will return for his 14th season at the helm looking to match regular season success with postseason satisfaction. The Colonials will once again be a top pick to finish in the top four of the league and will be searching to find a way to win in the single elimination portion of the league playoffs. With many important pieces back for the Colonials and question marks ahead of them in the standings this may just be the year for Schooley and company to make it back to the big tournament.
We have now reached the top five in our preview series of Atlantic Hockey, starting today with last season’s 5th place finisher the Holy Cross Crusaders. If you broke down last season in tiers for league points there would approximately four tiers: Niagara at the bottom by itself with 8 points, AIC through Holy Cross which were separated by just 8 points (21-29), Robert Morris and Army tied with 33 points and finally Air Force (41 points) and Canisius (42 points) making the top tier.
Holy Cross led the 3rd tier in the league, finishing 3 points ahead of sixth place RIT. However, as discussed yesterday RIT has the look of a team ready to move up the league standings so Holy Cross must find a way to elevate their play to either move up themselves or even hold onto that ledge at 5th place which earns a 1st round playoff bye. The good news for Crusaders’ fans is that, judging by the metrics used here during our team preview series, Holy Cross is set up well to make a move with RIT into the next tier of teams.
2017-18 was a step backwards for the RIT Tigers, who after back-to-back Atlantic Hockey Playoff Championship victories, found themselves missing the NCAA Tournament. It got worse for RIT who found themselves upset in the first round of the league playoffs by Niagara, ending the Tigers’ season much earlier than fans in Rochester, New York are used to. The Tigers returned 19 players from their 2015-16 squad and were picked to finish 1st by USCHO and 2nd by College Hockey News in preseason league rankings. This year the Tigers will look to bounce back to their normal place in the league standings battling for the top crown.