Atlantic Hockey Parity Signifies More Strength Across the Board
When it comes to the landscape of college hockey, Atlantic Hockey often gets overlooked. Usually, they lack some of the blue chip prospects that other conferences roll out on a day-to-day basis.
However, that doesn’t mean the league is non-competitive outside the conference, evidence that has often played out in the NCAA Tournament. And because of a variety of factors, the trend continues upward, with more teams getting big non-league wins. It’s also manifesting itself in the conference. Whereas there was a time when the league was very top heavy, there is now great parity at the top, involving more than half the teams this season.
Wins this season over Ohio State by Bentley, over Penn State by Canisius, and RIT’s sweep of Princeton are just a few of those that show the continued growth of the conference. The non-conference record of 17-40-3 (.308 winning percentage) is still at the bottom, but improving.
“I think over the past four seasons, five seasons, the gap has really closed and I think it continues to close in terms of our league and others,” Bentley head coach Ryan Soderquist said.
“I think we had some big non-conference wins as a league this year and we’re starting to have a lot of pride in seeing that and I think there’s been a continued growth over the last four or five years.”
While the conference as a whole has certainly closed the cap from a competition standpoint, gaining the same respect some of the other conferences have remains a work in progress.
“Getting the respect we deserve, I’d say not yet,” Canisius head coach Trevor Large said. “I think when you look around college hockey as a whole, it’s hard to put your finger on when do you get that respect and what does that feel like?”
There’s no denying that inside Atlantic Hockey there’s plenty of respect to go around, especially given the parity of the league and how jammed pack the conference standings are at the holiday break.
Bentley leads the conference by three points over Canisius. Army and RIT both sit right behind Canisius and are within six points of the top spot. Three points separate ninth place from fifth place and last place Holy Cross can make a big jump in the standings with a weekend sweep to start the calendar year.
“My eight years here at Canisius, the parity of the league has been phenomenal,” Large said. “This year it’s just another one of those years, It’s hard to predict who is going to be the regular season champion and even when we do that, it’s hard to predict whose going to be the automatic qualifier.”
Bentley’s path to the to the top has been driven by timely depth scoring and excellent goaltending from Evan DeBrouwer who is spending his first season with Bentley after transferring from Arizona State.
Bentley also has 14 different skaters with multiple goals.
“That’s been nice, you’re not just throwing one line over the boards thinking ‘hopefully they score and if they don’t we’re in trouble,’” Soderquist said. “I think all of our wins this year, we’ve gotten contributions from different players.”
The Falcons enter the holiday break on a five-game win streak.
“I’ve been in this league for a long time, I know this is a league that you need to peak at the right time and November or December is not the right time,” Soderquist said. “We want to be peaking late February to March and we’ll be working hard to do that.”
Coming off its conference championship loss to AIC last year, Canisius is poised for another deep run, loaded with talent from the net out. They were solid in the first half of the season and hope to continue that in the second half.
Injuries have hit Canisius hard with only five players appearing in all 19 games to date. But the Golden Griffins feature great depth, a big reason as to why they are where they are at the break.
“I know our guys and our staff, we have the same feeling. If we have our whole roster, our expectations are the moon,” Large said. “Depth is a great feeling when you have it because you know as the season gets hard and you get into playoffs, you’re looking forward into February and March, our expectations are very high.”
Teams like Army, RIT, Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst certainly can’t be overlooked. After being swept by Bentley to end November, Army responded with a win over Sacred Heart and then a sweep of RIT to enter the break on a high note.
“As probably as good of a weekend as I can remember for Army hockey. To come on the road and come to a place where we’ve really struggled to win,” said head coach Brian Riley.
“We had a rough start, challenging schedule. Now we’ve turned it around, 7-2-1 in our last 10. Obviously heading into this Christmas break feeling really happy and really proud of our guys. Certainly a weekend we’re not going to forget and hopefully one that vaults us into the second half.”
Army being competitive year in and year out is a new trend. Bentley and Sacred Heart are benefitting from new arenas. RIT may have scholarships around the corner.
And there’s no denying the monumental work Eric Lang has done as head coach at American International in recent years. Who saw that coming? After a slow start, don’t count out the Yellow Jackets, winners of the last three regular season titles and the last two postseason tournaments. Although it’s tied with Niagara for the seventh spot in the conference, AIC has played just eight conference games, least among its conference peers. If you sort the standings by point percentage, AIC quickly jumps up to third.
“I believe this about our team that when push comes to shove, I think you’re going to see AIC up near the top of the standings and our goal is to win the regular season championship, we don’t make any qualms about it,” Lang said. “I’m not backing off that.”
With the exception of two games with Connecticut that still need to be rescheduled, AIC has nothing but conference games left on the docket, including 10 games in January.
“It’s an extremely important month for our group and it’s an extremely important month for us to kind of set the tone of where we think we’re headed,” said Lang.
“I think this conversation at the end of January will be a very relevant one. Can we get to a spot where you win seven out of 10 games and all of a sudden you start to feel really good about what you’re doing?”
There’s two months of hockey left to be played before a regular season champion is crowned. A crown that is going to be a difficult one to earn. If the first half of the season has taught us anything, it’s that the conference will be for grabs until the very end.