Now this thing is truly wide open.
The Atlantic Hockey tournament championship and NCAA bid that accompanies it may have looked that way before, but Air Force and RIT – the two teams that have dominated the event in years past – always lurked in the background.
The Falcons and Tigers did not go down easily, but they went down in the quarterfinals last weekend – Canisius ousted Air Force and Niagara eliminated RIT – and for the first time since 2007 neither is in the championship round.
Air Force won five of the last six titles and RIT (in 2010) the other.
This weekend, the main stage belongs to Niagara, Canisius, Mercyhurst and Connecticut.
Niagara and Canisius bring their Battle of the Bridge rivalry from Buffalo to the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester for one semifinal on Friday and UConn takes on Mercyhurst in the other.
UConn and Mercyhurst split a pair of games in mid-January in Storrs.
The Huskies won the first night with senior Matt Grogan making 22 saves in a 5-4 decision.
Tyler Bouchard, a freshman from Glastonbury, Conn., led UConn with a pair of goals in the game. He had six all season.
Mercyhurst won the rematch 5-0 behind senior goalie Max Strang’s 40 saves. Junior Jordan Tibbett was in net for Mercyhurst’s two wins over Holy Cross in the quarterfinals.
The Huskies have come on strong in the second half. Grogan, who has replaced Garrett Bartus as the starting goalie, made 48 saves in a 2-1 loss at then No.1-Quinnipiac a few nights after the Mercyhurst loss.
The Huskies have gone 10-2-2 in their 14 games since and have not lost consecutive games. They are undefeated in their last seven at 6-0-1.
Grogan is 14-3-3 with a1.88 goals against average and .939 save percentage.
Of the four semifinalists, only Mercyhurst has played in an Atlantic Hockey championship game. The Lakers fell to Air Force in the title game in 2008 and 2009 and knocked off Quinnipiac, 3-2 in overtime, to win the championship in 2005.
Mercyhurst and Niagara both lost in the semifinals last year: The Lakers fell to Air Force, 5-2, and RIT outlasted the Purple Eagles, 2-1 in overtime.
“We’re really excited to have another chance in Rochester,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said on the team’s web site. “We have some unfinished business. We played alright last year and RIT scored in overtime in the semifinals. So we’re thrilled to have another shot at the title.”
The Purple Eagles also hope a good showing in the tournament, even if they come up short of a title, earns them an at-large berth to the NCAAs.
Niagara vs. Canisius features a pair of outstanding junior goalies in Carsen Chubak and Tony Capobianco and each had a huge weekend to take out the league powerhouses.
Chubak leads the league with a 1.81 gaa and .941 save percentage and stopped 59 of 62 shots against RIT.
Air Force outshot Canisius 43-26 on Friday and 53-25 on Saturday and the Griffs used late-game heroics to win each night
“Their goaltender was great,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore told the Colorado Gazette.
“He is a special goaltender but he’s not the only piece we have,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “It’s a big upset because it’s (seeds) 7 and 2, but we felt differently in our locker room than what the standings indicated. Air Force knows how to win but this was a big character win for us.”
The Griffs, the Purple Eagles, Huskies and Lakers will be looking for a couple more big character wins – and a spot in the Big Dance – this weekend.
Player of the Week
Grant Blakey, F, sr., Mercyhurst
Blakey made his goals count in Mercyhurst’s quarterfinal series against Holy Cross. He scored a goal in each of the three games and had the game-winning tallies in the first and third contests in the series to help the Lakers advance to the semifinals. He has a career-high 13 goals for the season and a team-leading five game-winners this year and seven winners for his career.
Games of the week
Merychurst vs. UConn, Canisius vs. Niagara, Friday
Mercyhurst outlasted Holy Cross in three games and UConn swept Robert Morris to earn spots against each other in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. They split a pair of games in mid-January in Storrs. Canisius and Niagara, crosstown rivals in Buffalo, advanced to a semifinal showdown by taking out perennial powers Air Force and RIT.
Niagara (23-8-5, 20-5-2) . .
. Junior goalie Carsen Chubak stopped 59 of the 62 shots he faced
to lead the Purple Eagles to a sweep of RIT, 3-2 and 2-1 in
overtime. Senior forward Marc Zanette scored his 10th
goal of the year and first game-winner 6:48 into overtime to end
the series on Saturday night.
2. UConn (19-13-4, 14-10-3) . . . Freshman forward Sean Pauly had two goals and an assist to lead a balanced UConn attack in its series sweep of Robert Morris. Fifteen of 18 UConn skaters had at least a point in the series. The Huskies 6-0-1 are in their last seven games and 10-2-2 in their last 14.
3. Mercyhurst (18-16-5, 12-11-4) . . . Junior goalie Jordan Tibbett made 24 saves in a 3-2 victory in the series opener against Holy Cross and then stopped 28 shots for his first career shutout, 1-0, in Game 3. The Lakers advanced to the Atlantic Hockey semifinals last year, too, and lost to Air Force, 5-2.
4. Canisius (17-18-5, 12-13-2) . . . Junior goalie Tony Capobianco did it again and led his Griffs to an upset of No. 2 seed Air Force, 4-3 and 4-3 in overtime, and into the championship round. Capobianco had 40 saves in Friday’s win and 50 on Saturday. Junior forward Kyle Gibbons had a couple of key goals for the Griffs.
5. Holy Cross (20-14-3, 15-9-3) . . . The Crusaders, after dropping the opener at home to Mercyhurst, took the series to three games but then were shut out 1-0 in Game 3. Junior Shayne Stockton led Holy Cross at 13-15-28. Senior Rob Linsmayer finished his career with an even 100 points (31 goals, 69 assists) in a school record 150 games.
6. Air Force (17-13-7, 15-7-5) . . . Air Force’s reign as champion ended with a couple of late losses at home to Canisius. The Falcons outshot the Griffs by a whopping 96-51 for the weekend. Tony Thomas scored a short-handed extra attacker goal to tie Friday’s game, 3-3 with 1:08 left, but Canisius scored on the power play with nine seconds to go.
7. Robert Morris (20-14-4, 13-11-3) . . . Goalie Eric Levine closes out at Robert Morris with career marks in save percentage (.925), goals against average (2.69) and shutouts (five). Senior forward Adam Brace led the Colonials at 14-27-41 this season and finishes at 46-69-115 in 135 career games.
8. RIT (15-18-5, 11-12-4) . . . The Tigers, who finished with a sub-.500 record for the first time since 2005-06, had only three seniors: Defenseman Chris Saracino closes out at 20-53-73 in 128 games; forward Jeff Smith at 26-20-46 in 102 and forward Adam Hartley at 33-38-71 in a team record 150 games.
9. AIC (12-17-6, 9-12-6).
10. Bentley (12-20-3, 10-14-3).
11. Army (7-22-5, 7-15-5).
12. Sacred Heart (2-30-4, 2-21-4).
Allen Lessels can be reached at email@example.com