The New Year is a crucial time in college hockey as the puck drops on the new semester and draws the annual chase for a national tournament berth closer.
In Atlantic Hockey, the conference tournament champion has been the lone national berth in each of the past six seasons. With Sacred Heart currently leading the pack, the Pioneers are eyeing their first regular-season Atlantic Hockey title. Second-place Army West Point sits just one point back and could capture their second-ever conference title and first since 2007-08.
The race in Atlantic Hockey is tight kicking off 2020, and a proverbial New Year’s resolution could go a long way in programs separating themselves from the pack — or looking toward the future.
Air Force: Win the games you should, split the rest.
The Falcons show just how tight Atlantic Hockey is, sitting sixth in the conference but a mere sweep away from third place, which is where having two games in hand can be dangerous. With 16 remaining games, and eight against lower-standing conference opponents — and two non-conference — the Falcons remain in striking distance.
A pivotal series with second-place Army is on the schedule this weekend, and coming away with one game would be a huge marker in the 6-2-3 record that has bounced the Falcons back from an 0-7 start. Beat the bottom dwellers and ride the momentum.
American International: Finish strong for the seniors.
Just five points back from the top, the Yellow Jackets remain in a fair position. But they haven’t managed to string together more than two wins in a row this season, and the inconsistent offense doesn’t make for much promise for a sudden surge.
But sitting in striking distance with a group of 10 seniors can be motivational as the veterans look to go out swinging. There’s no next year and pouring out the remaining energy would be great leadership for the younger group to learn from and pass on.
Army: Support the defense.
Army’s second-place standing has been built on a stellar defense, averaging just 2.24 goals against per game, which is 14th in the NCAA. It’s supported by an impressive 91.1 percent penalty kill rate, tied for fifth in the league. But support is needed elsewhere.
For such dominant own-zone play, it’s fair to ask the offense to chip in more consistently. Sitting at 41st in goals per game, there’s a lot to be desired up front and finding a way to open up the offense could go a long way in overtaking the top spot, or even earning an at-large bid.
Bentley: Prep Jason Grande for 2020-21.
The Falcons mark the cutoff for contention in seventh place with 18 points, six points back on sixth place. While no one is expecting the team to quit, it can make a major move to prepare itself for next season.
Freshman netminder Jason Grande has played just four games but sports a .920 save percentage and 1.81 goals against average, allowing just four goals on 50 shots. Despite the small sample size, he’s proving to be the best option moving forward, and it’s up to the coaches to get him more time and prepare him to contend for the No. 1 job next season.
Canisius: Find an identity.
The Golden Griffins seem to be of their own mold, yet lack an identity. They surrender shots, but freshman goalie Jacob Barczewski has fair numbers; they have scoring depth, but can’t best opponents, they have seniors to fight for, but no notable youth ready to take the reigns; they can upset fighting teams, but can also be more.
Somewhere in there is a true identity ready to breakout. All of this leads to them being the model of second-half chances this season, going 3-0-1 early in the winter semester following just two wins in the first half.
Holy Cross: Stay the course.
Following an eighth-place finish last season, the Crusaders are in the midst of another disappointing season as they sit in ninth place with four surrounding teams all having at least two games in hand. But there’s light on the horizon as a predominantly young roster will take the reigns next season.
Three of the team’s four leading scorers are underclassmen, in addition to freshman goalie Matt Radomsky. Despite mediocre numbers, he has been the best of the three goalies used this season. The coaches put their trust in him, ignoring class status politics, with 17 games thus far to learn for next year.
Mercyhurst: Play the upsetter.
It has been a lost season in Mercyhurst as subpar numbers across the board have all but glued them to 11th place in Atlantic Hockey. Their lone regulation win came on opening night — against a strong Arizona State team, no less. But wins have been scattered since, with their last coming on Nov. 16.
Still, there’s little reason to believe the Lakers can’t muster up a few wins in the final 17 games. They have a chance to make the road ahead difficult for divisional rivals and could throw a proverbial wrench in the standings as teams fight for conference tournament seeding.
Niagara: Preach two-way play.
The Purple Eagles are similar to Holy Cross with five of the team’s leading scorers playing as underclassmen. They’re young and eager, especially on the offensive side of the ice. But their own zone can use a good refurbishing as the team surrenders a lot of shots, chances, and rebounds.
Despite decent goaltending numbers from the tandem, the stats are misleading due to the high volume of shots against mentioned. Preaching a dedication to playing the right way and defending before pushing offense will help shore up defensive zone errors and keep the puck on the right side of the ice.
RIT: Be patient.
With the Tigers’ next four games coming against non-conference opponents, the standings will start to look skewed, but it’ll earn them some games in hand and a chance to map out the road ahead. Patience will be the key in the coming weeks when rivals continue to add points.
Teams play to win every game, but having the ability to put fate it your own hands can go a long way when wins matter most. With the next four games having no point-bearing on the conference, the Tigers can work out some kinks and prepare themselves for the final stretch of AH play.
Robert Morris: Battle Penn State and build from there.
The Colonials finished the first half with an ugly 0-4-3 record. Add in an exhibition loss to Ontario Tech and there may be a negative aura in the locker room as the team’s last win gets further and blurrier.
A single-game matchup with No. 6-ranked Penn State this weekend could be a dagger, despite a favorable schedule of the team to end the season. A good battle would build confidence ahead of three straight games against Mercyhurst. But looking too far ahead to lower teams could see those teams feed on dampened confidence.
Sacred Heart: Roll with it.
Saving the best for last, the Pioneers sit atop Atlantic Hockey through the turn of the calendar and simply matching the first semester should be enough to claim first place and hold the top seed heading into the conference tournament.
That means every player focuses on their own game and the team continues to roll one game at a time. They can only control their own fate and will need to ignore their rivals and the standings. Failure to do so could have the team place unnecessary pressure on itself and veer from its identity at the worst time.
Don’t miss any Atlantic Hockey action in the New Year; live-stream each game right here on FloHockey.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.