December 24, 2011

From NEHJ: AIC formulating an escape plan

By Allen Lessels

AIC rallied from two goals down for a 2-2 tie against Army on the last night of the 2009-10 Atlantic Hockey regular season. After the game, coach Gary Wright and some of the Yellow Jackets stood outside Tate Rink at West Point and checked on scores from around the league.

AIC junior forward Adam Pleskach (photo: Richard Orr/AIC)

AIC junior forward Adam Pleskach (photo: Richard Orr/AIC)

In came word from Storrs that UConn had scored in overtime to knock off Mercyhurst, 3-2.

“It was a little disappointing,” said Wright (Cornwall, Vt.). “Sure it was.”

With the night’s results, UConn slipped past AIC, leaving the Yellow Jackets in last place again in the regular season.

The Yellow Jackets had gone into the night tied with the Huskies for ninth place in what was then a 10-team league.

Last winter, it happened again.

AIC lost its last game, by a goal, at home to UConn, and Sacred Heart knocked off Army in its finale.

The league had grown to 12 teams and again AIC, which had owned a one-point lead on Sacred Heart, fell into last place by a single point.

“It’s nothing to brag about, but on the last night of the season each of the last two years, we dropped into last place,” Wright said. “We don’t like the idea of being 11th and it’s nothing to brag about, but it’s still better than 12th.”

The Yellow Jackets have come as close as can be to escaping the cellar each of the past two seasons, but it’s not like breaking out of last place is a major topic of discussion around the locker room and the team.

“There’s a little awkwardness about it,” Wright said. “It’s such a modest thing. You’re disappointed to be there to begin with, but since you’re there, you deal with it.”

Dealing with the adversity of losing and battling to turn their fortunes around is something Wright, his staff and players have been dealing with for a number of years.

It’s an issue struggling programs deal with in every league, in every sport.
The Yellow Jackets got this season off to a decent start — they were tied for sixth place at Thanksgiving — and are hoping this might be the season.

“We have a team we feel can really make a splash this year and contend in the end,” said senior forward and captain Nielsson Arcibal. “We really like the core group we have that came back this year. The new freshmen have helped and the goaltending has been real solid. We’ve definitely become a better team as a whole.”

So why not the Yellow Jackets?

Two years ago, Sacred Heart jumped in the standings from eighth place to second. Last season, UConn made a big move.

“There are a lot of those programs and some of them have been a bit more successful than us,” Wright said. “But it’s still a pretty fine line. You get a couple of more guys and it can make a pretty big difference in a hurry. It’s not like we were getting beat 8-0 and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, boy, this is an overhaul.’”

The Yellow Jackets have been making strides, too.

“I think we have made progress and gotten better every year,” Wright said. “But so have our opponents.”

AIC, the coach said, has dealt well with its adversity.

“It can wear on you a bit because so much of the bottom line of what we do is ultimately whether you win or lose,” Wright said. “Maybe we haven’t done as good a job of winning hockey games, but I do feel that we’ve continued to compete hard right through tough times and have not lost focus and not had discipline issues.”

The structure of the league helps some.

“Because everyone in our league makes the playoffs, it’s not like you get to January and February and you’re thinking you’re not going to make the playoffs and now what do you do?” Wright said. “And you know what, it doesn’t take very many wins once the playoffs start and all of a sudden you find yourself going pretty far. That’s certainly a factor.”

Last season, the Yellow Jackets dealt with the disappointment of being in the cellar again by going to Army and upsetting the Black Knights, 6-3, in the first round of the league tournament.

That win helped fuel some of the optimism for his year.

“We went into the summer and we all wanted to get better to help the team even more,” Arcibal said. “One of my big motivators this year is I’m a senior, and I kind of want to go out with a bang, and want to win for the guys I’ve played with and the guys on the team now.”

The Yellow Jackets have a nice balance of classes among their key players. They have seniors such as Arcibal, defenseman Chris Markiewicz and forward Michael Penny; junior scorer Adam Pleskach and goalie Ben Meisner; sophomore Jon Puskar; and freshmen in Nathan Sliwinski, Jason Popek and Brandon Fagerheim, who contributed important goals early.

Meisner has had a very solid career and had an impressive start to the season. He was 2-3-2 in Atlantic Hockey games going into Thanksgiving with a .935 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average.

“He’s shown real good mental toughness late in games in terms of making key saves,” Wright said. “He competes very hard and he’s been very consistent.”

A season-opening trip to Michigan Tech gave the Yellow Jackets a boost this season. They lost 4-3 and 3-1 to a team that is not traditionally a power in the WCHA but already owns a couple of wins over Wisconsin and beat Denver.

“The first game, we were one post away from putting the game away,” Arcibal said. “We lost by a goal, but it showed us the WCHA is no different than Atlantic Hockey. That really helped us out. Everyone’s got the mindset we can do this.”

That is, Arcibal said, one of the things that brought him and others to AIC.

“That’s one of the benefits of coming here,” he said. “We all wanted to help turn it around.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.