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As Sacred Heart and Army pull away from their Atlantic Hockey colleagues, the natural question to wonder about is whether either program has the ability for a first-round upset at the 2020 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament.
This may be a premature question based on the portion of remaining schedules, but AH has been no stranger to dishing out an upset on the national stage. AH has relied on the conference tournament champion for a national tournament berth in each of the past six seasons and has just one at-large bid since the inception of the conference in 2003-04.
Still, those programs haven’t been shy about making a statement regarding their inclusion with the perennial contenders. In four of the past six tournaments, the lone AH rep has come away with a first-round victory.
Last season, AIC knocked off top-seeded St. Cloud State. In 2018, Air Force also came out on top over another top-seeded St. Cloud State team. Air Force also defeated Western Michigan in the opening round in 2017. In 2015 RIT bested another top seed in Minnesota State.
Now, as the season churns on and Sacred Heart and Army continue to distinguish themselves from the rest of the AH pack, their battle for a chance at the national stage will heat up. With both teams falling just outside of Monday’s USCHO national poll, there’s only room for one at the moment.
But the aforementioned length of each program’s remaining schedule can change that as AH could see its first at-large bid since 2013.
The Competitors’ Cases
Sacred Heart continues to run through opponents, capping off a sweep of Mercyhurst with a 9-3 win for its 14th win of the season and eighth victory in nine games. Sitting at 14-7-1, a deep offense and defensively committed blue line has pulled the Pioneers to the top of the conference and eyeing their first national tournament in program history.
While the Pioneers’ schedule has been played heavily against AH foes, they went 0-2 against Penn State in October, their only ranked opponent of the season. The lack of schedule strength doesn’t bode well for an at-large bid should the conference tournament favor another team.
But the Pioneers will have a shot at increasing those odds with the Jan. 25-26 Connecticut Ice tournament, where they’ll battle Yale, and either UConn or current No. 20-ranked Quinnipiac for a chance at a pair of wins.
Pending a berth and favorable first-round matchup, the Pioneers have the tools to join previous AH colleagues with an upset in the 2020 national tournament.
Two points back on the Pioneers, Army is also seeking its first national tournament berth. With a 14-7-2 overall record, the Black Knights’ aren’t quite in the same category as the Pioneers, despite a similar record. Army has been a strong defensive team, as evidenced by the sixth-best penalty kill in the NCAA.
But a fluctuating offense has held them back with a total goals-for that places them 20th in the NCAA. While each line has chipped in, the lack of a go-to forward and a double-digit goal-scorer more than halfway through the season is proving hard to overcome.
Like Sacred Heart, the Black Knights’ schedule has also been dependent on conference success. Their only ranked opponents came with a pair of losses to then-No. 14 Providence and then-No. 6 Ohio State at the Fortress Invitational to open the New Year.
Pending a national berth, the Knights are likely to have a tougher time stacking up against the top competition on their current trajectory; a first-round loss would be likely.
Don’t miss any AH action as Sacred Heart and Army battle it out in the final months of the season for the chance at a national tournament berth.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.