January 11, 2013

Atlantic Hockey Journal: Mad dash to the finish begins

By Allen Lessels

Niagara's Carsen Chubak owns a superb .954 save percentage. (Photo: Niagara University Athletics)

The Purple Eagles, to be sure, have pulled away from the field a bit in Atlantic Hockey.

Other than that, though, the first three months of a five-month-long college hockey regular season grind have not separated the league a whole heck of a lot.

Take Niagara off the top and things are mighty tight in the standings and, chances are, they will stay that way right through the next two months and the race to the finish line and the postseason. 

“There are a lot of good teams, really good teams,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl. “It should be a lot of fun.”

That it should.

Just like it was last year when the top six teams in the league finished within three points of each other.

Niagara certainly appears intent on making sure there’s some serious separation at the very top.

“They shut people down defensively,” Pearl said. “I thought they were the best team in the league last year. They’ve very well coached. They’ve got good goalies. They’re strong offensively. They’re fast. There’s nothing not to like about those guys.”

The Purple Eagles open the weekend with a five-point lead on second-place Army.

So start right below them.

The mad dash to the finish and the battle for home ice and byes for all intents starts this weekend. No longer is the schedule pocked with nonconference games here and there.

This is the first weekend all season that all 12 league teams are playing each other and that’s pretty much how it will be the rest of the way.

Only two league teams – Connecticut sand Sacred Heart – have a game remaining against a non-league opponent and each has only one such contest.

Other than that, it’s All Atlantic, all the time.

A few of this weekend’s matchups spice things up in particular.

For starters, there’s UConn at Robert Morris. The Huskies trail the Colonials by a couple of points in the standings and are looking for their first-ever win against them: They are 0-4-0 against Robert Morris at the moment.

Then there’s Holy Cross at Mercyhurst and Bentley at RIT. Both pairings are rematches of wild quarterfinal series that went three games last March. Mercyhurst and RIT earned home ice for last year’s quarterfinals and they hold it again this weekend.

Bentley is up two points on RIT in the standings.

The intrigue doesn’t get much better than that for Holy Cross-Mercyhurst.

Last year, the teams finished in a three-way tie for third place in the standings and because of a tiebreaker, Holy Cross was the odd team out and had to play a first-round match and then  travel to Mercyhurst for the quarters.

Their status heading into this weekend: Holy Cross and Mercyhurst are tied for third place in the standings.

Here we go again.  

Player of the Week

Daniel O’Donoghue, jr., F, Mercyhurst

O’Donoghue figured in each Laker goal, scoring three of them himself, in Saturday’s 5-2 win at Maine. His second period goal gave Mercyhurst a 2-1 lead going into the third period and he closed things out with a pair of empty net, short-handed goals in the last two minutes of the game. O’Donoghue has six goals and six assists for the season.

Games of the week

Holy Cross at Mercyhurst, Friday & Saturday

The Crusaders and Lakers head into the weekend tied for third place in the Atlantic Hockey standings, two points behind Army and two points in front of Canisius. The Holy Cross-Mercyhurst series is a rematch of their quarterfinal series last March at Mercyhurst. The Lakers prevailed in that one, two games to one. 

Power Rankings

1.      Niagara (11-3-4, 10-0-1) . . . After extending its home unbeaten streak to 14 games with a 4-3 win over Air Force, Niagara hits the road for its next five games. The Purple Eagles have two at AIC and two at Holy Cross before starting a home-and-home series at RIT. . . . Senior goalie Carsen Chubak has a .954 save percentage and 1.46 goals against average.

2.      Holy Cross (10-6-2, 6-3-2) . . . Senior forward Brandon Nunn has three goals and two assists in three games since returning to the lineup from a shoulder injury in a 5-4 win over Yale on Dec. 30. Nunn has 8-6-14 totals in 10 games. Senior Kyle Fletcher leads the Crusaders at 7-10-17.

3.      Robert Morris (10-5-2, 5-4-1)  . . . Senior goalie Eric Levine and the Colonials, after shutting out Penn State (6-0) and Miami (1-0) to win the Consol Energy Classic the week before, were shut out 5-0 by Army on Friday. Levine bounced back with 47 saves in a 4-1 win on Saturday. He now as a 2.02 gaa, .950 save percentage and 9-3-2 record.

4.      Mercyhurst (9-7-1, 7-3-0) . . . The Lakers rebounded from a 2-1 loss to Maine in Portland on Friday for a 5-2 win on Saturday night in Orono. It was the first win for the Lakers against Maine and they are now 1-5-1 against the Black Bears. Max Strang had a season-high 43 saves for the win and also contributed his third assist of the season.

5.      Army (7-9-2, 7-4-2) . . . The Black Knights made it consecutive shutouts for the first time in nearly five years when Rob Tadazak blanked Robert Morris, 5-0, on Friday. Tadazak shut out Canisius, 1-0 in overtime, on Dec. 30. Army plays a two-game set at Air Force this weekend. 

6.      Bentley (7-9-1, 5-5-1) . . . Junior forward Justin Breton (Fitchburg, Mass.) scored one goal and assisted on Derek Bacon’s game-winner in a 6-3 decision over Northeastern on Saturday. Senior forward Brett Hartung had a pair of Falcon goals. It was Bentley’s second straight win over the Huskies.

7.      Air Force (6-9-4, 4-5-2) . . . The Falcons dropped their only game last weekend at Niagara, 4-3. Now they will try to make a move in the standing with a home-friendly schedule over the next month. Army is at Air Force this weekend, then the Falcons play a pair at Sacred Heart before returning home to face Robert Morris and AIC.

8.      Canisius (6-9-5, 5-4-2) . . . Late Bowling Green goals in back-to-back games cost the Golden Griffins and they ended up with a 2-2 tie and 3-2 loss on the road for the weekend. Kyle Gibbons tied Sunday’s game with five minutes left and Bowling Green scored the winner with less than two minutes to go.

9.      UConn (7-8-2, 4-6-1) . . . Bruce Marshall, UConn’s coach for the last 25 years, resigned on Monday. Marshall had been on a leave for undisclosed medical reasons since Nov. 6. Assistant coach Dave Berard has been running the team on an interim basis and will do so through the end of the year, when a national search a coach will be conducted, school officials said.

10.  RIT (5-9-4, 3-5-3) . . . Coming off a split at St. Lawrence -- each team won a 4-3 game -- the Tigers get back to Atlantic Hockey play at home against Bentley. The Tigers allowed a pair of short-handed goals in a game for the second time this year in the win over St. Lawrence. Good news is the RIT power play has improved to 23.2 percent for the season. 

11.  AIC (4-10-3, 1-7-3) . . . The Yellow Jackets play at home for the first time since Nov. 16 when they take on Niagara in a home pair this weekend. They follow up with two against Robert Morris at home next weekend. Senior Adam Pleskach continues to lead AIC in scoring with 4-10-14 totals through 17 games.

12.  Sacred Heart (0-17-2, 0-11-2) . . . The Pioneers play their next four games at home with a pair against Canisuis this weekend and then two with Air Force next weekend. Senior forward Eric Delong at 7-9-16 and sophomore forward Brian Sheehan at 7-8-15 are the two Pioneers in double figures in scoring. 

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