March 15, 2012

Atlantic Hockey Journal: Air Force's repeat hopes alive

By Allen Lessels

Air Force knocked off RIT, 1-0, in the Atlantic Hockey Association championship game at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., last March. 

Mercyhurst and Niagara hope to keep those two teams from meeting for the title again this weekend.

The field is set for the Atlantic Hockey championship round and, as it turned out, the top four seeds advanced to Rochester. It was far from an easy road, though, and three of the four quarterfinal series went a full three games.

Now it’s down to single elimination, one and done, when No. 4 Mercyhurst squares off against No. 1 Air Force and No. 3 RIT takes on No. 2 Niagara on Friday. The winners meet for the championship and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament on Saturday at 7:05 p.m.

Air Force has won four of the last five Atlantic Hockey tournaments and RIT grabbed the other in 2009-10.

Mercyhurst and Niagara look to crash that party, too.

Air Force, RIT and Mercyhurst each needed three games -- and took out a New England-based contender for the championship -- to get out of the quarterfinals.

The Falcons beat UConn 4-3 on Friday night, but fell 3-1 on Saturday. In Sunday’s finale, UConn led 2-1 early in the second period and again 3-2 late in the period before Air Force rallied for another 4-3 decision.

“You just can’t put this one into words,” Falcon coach Frank Serratore said in a story on the team’s web site. “Our guys just kept battling. At times it looked like this wasn’t going to be our night, but the hockey gods were with us. We had to come from behind twice tonight. This was nothing but guts for us tonight. Give UConn a lot of credit. Nothing but guts from them as well.”

RIT lost the opener of its series to Bentley, 4-1; survived double overtime for a 5-4 win on Saturday; and closed it out with a 3-0 win behind Shane Madolora’s 24 saves.

“What a grind,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, whose team is now 10-2 in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal round. “That’s our league to a ‘T’, so evenly matched this year. This was a tough, tough game and series.”

Mercyhurst snapped a 10-game Holy Cross unbeaten streak in the first game on Friday night, 2-1. The Crusaders bounced back for a 3-1 win to force a third game and dropped that one, 3-1.

Niagara earned the only quarterfinal sweep with 3-0 and 2-1 triumphs over Robert Morris.

Senior goalies led each of the four teams to the semifinals.  Niagara’s Chris Noonan heads into the Final Four with a .944 save percentage and 1.60 goals against average; RIT’s Shane Madolora is at .932 and 1.92; Mercyhurst’s Max Strang at .927 and 2.63; and Air Force’s Stephen Caple, who came on in relief in the first two games of the quarterfinals and started the third, is at .911 and 2.16.

Games of the Week

Atlantic Hockey semifinals

No. 4 Mercyhurst vs. No. 1 Air Force, No. 3 RIT vs. No. 2 Niagara, Friday

Mercyhurst beat Air Force, 2-1, in the most recent game between the teams in Colorado Springs on Feb. 18. Air Force rolled to an 8-0 win the night before that and also beat the Lakers, 3-2, in Erie on Nov. 12.

RIT and Niagara played to a 0-0 tie on Oct. 8 and 2-2 tie on Feb. 25 in Rochester. Niagara won its home game, 4-1, on Feb. 24.

Air Force and Mercyhurst played in the Atlantic Hockey championship games in 2008 and 2009. Air Force won both games, 5-4 in double overtime the first year and 2-0 the next.

Atlantic Hockey power rankings

  1. Air Force (19-10-7, 15-6-6 AHA). . . . After coming on in relief in the first two games, Stephen Caple started in goal for Falcons and made 28 saves to finish out the series against UConn with a 4-3 win.
  2. Niagara (17-10-9, 14-6-7). . . . Purple Eagles stopped Robert Morris, 3-0 and 2-1, for the only sweep in the quarterfinals.
  3. RIT (19-12-6, 14-7-6). . . . Senior Shane Madolora’s 24 saves in Game 3 blanked Bentley, 3-0, and sent Tigers on to the semifinals. 
  4. Mercyhurst (20-15-4, 15-8-4). . . . Freshman Matthew Zay scored twice and sophomore Daniel O’Donoghue assisted on all three goals in 3-1 clinching win over Holy Cross. 
  5. Holy Cross (20-15-4, 15-8-4). . . . Adam Schmidt tallied two goals and Andrew Cox had the winner in the 3-1 triumph that got Crusaders to Game 3.  
  6. Bentley (16-16-8, 13-7-7). . . . Branden Komm stopped 46 of 47 shots in 4-1 win in opener and 58 of 62 in 5-4 double-overtime loss in second game. Komm had 30 saves in a 3-0 loss in Game 3. 
  7. UConn (16-19-4, 12-12-3). . . . Sophomore Cole Schneider contributed three goals and three assists in quarterfinals to finish at 23-22-45 for the season.   
  8. Robert Morris (17-17-5, 13-9-5). . . . Senior goaltender Brooks Ostergard closes out season with a .928 save percentage and 2.43 goals against average.
  9. Canisius (10-22-4, 10-14-3).  
  10. AIC (8-26-3, 6-18-3).
  11. Sacred Heart (6-28-3, 4-20-3).
  12. Army (4-23-7, 3-19-5).

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.