2021 Niagara vs AIC - Men's SF #1

2021 Atlantic Hockey Tournament: Niagara Makes Surprising Push Into Semis

2021 Atlantic Hockey Tournament: Niagara Makes Surprising Push Into Semis

Atlantic Hockey is down to four teams remaining as the fight for the postseason tournament narrows.

Mar 15, 2021 by Jacob Messing
2021 Atlantic Hockey Tournament: Niagara Makes Surprising Push Into Semis

Atlantic Hockey is down to four teams remaining as the fight for the postseason tournament narrows.

American International, Robert Morris, Army West Point, Canisius, and RIT each earned a bye for the reformatted, single-elimination first-round. Sacred Heart also received a bye for the first-round after pending opponent Holy Cross withdrew from the postseason following a tier 1 positive coronavirus test.

The First Round

Following Sacred Heart’s bye, the first-round field of Niagara vs Mercyhurst and Air Force vs Bentley remained. 

Mercyhurst entered last Monday’s first-round contest with energy, getting off to a two-goal lead. But a powerplay sparked Niagara, which tied it up with two goals in the span of three and a half minutes to end the second period locked at 2-2.

Despite being outshot 16-9 in the final frame, the Purple Eagles scored the game-winning goal with less than five minutes remaining in regulation, earning them a place in the quarterfinals.

Air Force jumped out to a lead just 20 seconds into their first-round matchup with Bentley. The first period was full of action as Bentley recorded three unanswered goals. Air Force would cut the lead to one with a late powerplay goal.

Another exciting period followed with Air Force tying it up 3-3 early on. But Bentley would continue to push, adding the next two goals to bring a 5-3 score into the third period. Air Force pushed hard in the dying minutes of the third period, pulling their goalie for an extra skater, but ultimately surrendering two empty-net goals to give the Falcons a 7-3 win and trip to the next round.

The Quarterfinals

Awaiting the Bentley Falcons was (No. 1 seed) AIC, who took the top seed for the third-consecutive season after claiming the regular-season title for the third time in as many years. Following an “uptick in positive COVID-19 cases on campus,” Bentley announced its withdrawal from the next round, advancing AIC to the quarterfinals.

The best-of-three quarterfinals now pegged (6) Sacred Heart vs (2) Army, (5) RIT vs (4) Canisius, and (9) Niagara vs (3) Robert Morris.

An up-and-down season at Sacred Heart ended on the latter note as Army — which held the nation’s longest active unbeaten streak of 11 games (10-0-1 ) —made for a semi-quick disposal of the Pioneers with a two-game sweep.

A 4-0 shutout in the opening game put Army in the driver’s seat, but the Pioneers came out fast in Game 2 with a two-goal lead. The Black Knights would be in familiar territory; playing from behind.

The composure and competitiveness much alluded to by coach Brian Riley meant the Black Knights were comfortable in any situation. The Black Knights would add the next two goals to tie it up before a late second-period tally gave the Pioneers another lead. Army would again tie it up, 3-3, where the two programs sat deadlocked through the next 60 minutes and 59 seconds.

Finally, the Black Knights’ breakout star Colin Bilek scored the series-winning goal, a triple-overtime tally that gave him his 18th of the season. The semifinals are next.

On paper, the No. 4 vs. No. 5 seeds are supposed to be the most equally matched series.

But Canisius would score 11 total goals in the two-game sweep of RIT with 5-2 and 6-2 wins. In the 180-minute series, Canisius trailed for only eight minutes and 48 seconds and held a lead for 142 minutes and 11 seconds. They were the better team and earned their trip to the semifinal this weekend.

Canisius will take on streaking Army in the semifinals.

In the third series, (2) Robert Morris took on (9) Niagara. Niagara, 5-10-3 coming into the series, was up to the task. The Purple Eagles showed they were a serious threat with an early lead in Game 1. A 2-2 score heading into the third period would hold, where the offensive-heavy Colonials were stifled with just six shots in the third period, compared to 25 combined shots in the two periods prior.

The Colonials would ultimately take Game 1 with an overtime-winner, putting them one win from the next round. Niagara had other plans.

The Purple Eagles’ defense was up to the task again, holding the Colonials to two goals and another thrilling overtime, where the Purple Eagles would come out on top this time with the game-winner 7:31 into the second overtime to tie the series 1-1 and book a winner-takes-all Game 3.

In Game 3, the Purple Eagles pushed their defensive coverage even further, holding the Colonials to just one goal, scored with the extra attacker with 12 seconds remaining. By then, the Purple Eagles two goals had them on top for a major upset in the quarterfinals.

Now, Niagara is set to face AIC in the semifinals this weekend where they’ll look for an even bigger upset and shot at the championship, where the winner earns a bid to the NCAA National Tournament.

Watch every Atlantic Hockey Semifinal game live, right here on FloHockey this weekend.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.