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The Sacred Heart Pioneers posted their best record since the 2009-10 season thanks to a dynamic offense, but as the regular season comes to an end their hope for their first-ever NCAA tournament berth has come down to the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
Several weeks ago, the Pioneers held the top spot in the conference and were looking promising to claim the top seed for the league postseason. But a red-hot AIC team jumped them for the conference title, despite the Pioneers going 6-3-1 in their past 10.
The Pioneers will still hold a bye in the first round as seeding for the bottom six teams falls in place, but come playoffs, they will be facing a tougher opponent on paper than they would have prior to AIC’s surge to its second consecutive league title.
Overall, it’s not a significant change, but in the dangerous, season-defining Pairwise Rankings — where only the top 16 teams make the national tournament cut — the Pioneers sit at No. 26 in the latest poll.
With the Pioneers top three scorers all playing in their senior year, in addition to two other seniors, the dynamic offense that built up the momentum and expectation all season long is on the verge of disappointment.
Short of becoming the last team standing in Atlantic Hockey, where AIC has built an 11-game win streak and an equally dangerous Army team stands, the Pioneers’ breakout could be all for naught.
Jason Cotton, Mike Lee, and Austin McIlmurray each hit the 30-point mark this season and combined for 43 goals, led by Cotton’s 20 tallies. Add in seniors Vito Bavaro and Max Luukko, who scored 16 and two, respectively, and a total of 61 goals and on their way out this season.
That accounts for nearly 50 percent of the team’s total offense this season. It is a significant part of how drastic this season can be for Sacred Heart, which has posted its first winning record since 2009-10.
But even if that first-ever NCAA tournament bid is not in the cards this season, the seniors helped establish confidence and a winning atmosphere, which is certain to spill over into the 2020-21 season, even if the Pioneers struggle to completely match their 2019-20 numbers.
Forwards Matt Tugnutt and Jordan Kaplan have each posted the best point totals of their collegiate careers and will be entering their senior seasons next year.
Tugnutt has recorded 13 goals and 27 points in 30 games and will be the team’s top returning scorer in both goals and points. Kaplan has improved offensively in each of his three seasons and has nine goals and 24 points in 33 games.
Fellow junior Mark Johnstone bounced back this year after a dip in production as a junior in 2018-19 and has 25 points (7 G, 18 A) in 33 games.
As a freshman this season, Braeden Tuck is fifth in team scoring with 27 points (4 G, 23 A) in 33 games and sits 10th nationally in points per game for freshmen — accompanied by 2019 first-round drafts picks Cole Caufield, Trevor Zegras, and Alex Newhook.
Most Points, Freshmen— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) February 12, 2020
32 – Cole Caufield, Wisconsin (MTL)
31 – Nick Abruzzese, Harvard (TOR)
29 – Trevor Zegras, Boston University (ANA)
26 – Alex Newhook, Boston College (COL)
26 – Braeden Tuck, Sacred Heart pic.twitter.com/7wjdtlWH0O
The inevitable increase in ice time, confidence, and maturation will help the players carry on the momentum built this season into next year and help feed their teammates as they continue to fight for the national stage.
Don’t miss the Atlantic Hockey tournament right here on FloHockey.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.