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American International will put a six-game winning streak on the line against No. 20 Sacred Heart on Tuesday night, with the resulting winner claiming the top spot in Atlantic Hockey.
The two teams are currently tied for first place in the conference with 46 points, but the Yellow Jackets hold the tiebreaker of having one game in hand. The Yellow Jackets bested the Pioneers during their first matchup, a 2-1 win on Oct. 18. Sacred Heart earned revenge nearly two months later with a 4-2 win on Dec. 3 to even the season series.
Now after another near two-month gap, the programs will meet again Tuesday night for what has been primed to be one of the most exciting matchups in Atlantic Hockey this season.
Sacred Heart has been a staple on consistency this season, holding an 18-8-2 overall record (15-6-1 conference); its last losing streak came in early November as the Pioneers have failed to accumulate at least one point just three times since Nov. 7. But they know they’ve got a tough test with the Yellow Jackets.
“They’re a really talented team,” Pioneers assistant coach Paul Kirtland said of AIC following Friday’s practice. “We’re going to have to be dialed in. We’re going to have to be disciplined — make sure we’re taking care of the puck and try and dictate as much as we can and take the game to them.”
As Kirtland mentioned, discipline will be pivotal for each team; the Pioneers are third in the NCAA with a 27 percent power-play conversion rate; meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets have converted on five of their last 11 power plays over their past two contests.
Discipline will go a long way in the Pioneers’ hopes to build on an 11-0 conference record on the road as they head to AIC this week.
At the turn of the calendar, the race in Atlantic Hockey was between Sacred Heart and Army before AIC’s six-game winning streak — all coming over conference rivals for 18 straight points — threw the Yellow Jackets back into the mix for first place.
Now, AIC has eyes on its second consecutive National Tournament berth, pending success at the conference tournament. Last season, their conference tournament championship brought them to the national stage, where they ousted top-seeded St. Cloud State, 2-1, before a 3-0 loss to a perennial contender, Denver.
Sitting at 15-11-1 overall (15-5-1 conference), the Yellow Jackets have been inconsistent this season never winning more than two consecutive games prior to their current six-game streak.
But it’s “better late than never,” with a first-place position, confidence, and a roaring power play adding up to the sudden potential of a second consecutive national tournament berth.
Regardless of a red-hot power play and 11 goals over the past two games, attempting to flat-out outscore the Pioneers would be a mistake, and AIC coach Eric Lang is the first to acknowledge that.
“[The Pioneers are] the most talented team in our league,” Lang told Greg Cameron of College Hockey News. “They score in bunches. If you let them get out and play their speed game, you’re going to be in big trouble.”
But AIC is built on defense — strong defense.
“When we’re defending hard and we’re working in transition, that’s when we’re at our best,” Lang added.
Successfully curbing the Sacred Heart offense is a tall task, but should the Yellow Jackets fend them off the Pioneers early, the high-scoring team will push hard and mistakes will lead to gaps, which will lead to offensive chances for AIC.
That’s not to imply the AIC offense isn’t dangerous, but it’s that that offensive patience that has helped the Jackets rediscover the game that the largely returning cast used to best some of the top teams in the NCAA in 2018-19 and fight back to their current position.
Don’t miss the action, Tuesday night at 7 PM ET, when the Jackets and Pioneers fight for the top spot in Atlantic Hockey live, right here on FloHockey.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.