Springfield, MA- Two years ago, it was unthinkable for American International College and Sacred Heart University to be players in the college hockey scene. The two had never been to an NCAA Tournament and rarely made deep Atlantic Tournament runs. But, AIC surprised fans across the nation with their first Atlantic Hockey Championship and an upset over the NCAA Tournament’s number one seeded St. Cloud State Huskies in 2019. 2020 has seen Sacred Heart rise to the national rankings and the top of the conference behind the nation’s second best offense.
The Atlantic’s surprising top two teams met in Springfield on Tuesday night for first place in the conference. With first place on the line, AIC played one of their best games of the season while Sacred Heart laid their first egg in a few months.
The Yellow Jackets jumped off the blocks quickly. Elijiah Barrigia opened the scoring 1:42 into the game with a shot through traffic for the UNLV transfer’s eighth goal of the year. Martin Mellberg extended the lead by capping a smooth passing sequence with a roofer 6:32 into the night.
Sacred Heart showed fight. Jere Urup put home a power play goal following a Chris Dodero interference minor and Jordan Kaplan turned a good Jason Cotton feeder pass into a whistling shot into the twine to tie the game 2-2 near the first’s mid-point. Pace cooled somewhat to keep the game tied at intermission.
The wheels completely fell off the Pioneers’ wagon in the second period. Blake Christensen started the scoring parade with a low wrister that served as the game winner and a record tying moment. The senior from Coral Springs, FL, recorded his 114th career point, tying him with Adam Pleskach for the most career points at American International College. The goal was his 46th, giving him fourth place all alone for the 4th most goals in Yellow Jacket history.
AIC kept the pressure up on SHU for the rest of the frame. Chris Dodero cleaned up a bouncing puck in the crease to make the lead 4-2 at 6:42 of the period. Late in the second, Janis Jaks punched home a power play goal off a Mike Lee cross check penalty. About a minute later, Austen Long played a carom off the glass and punched home the sixth AIC goal of the night.
SHU Head Coach CJ Marottolo decided to pull Josh Benson from the net. The Pioneers’ starter allowed six goals on 25 shots faced and got hung out to dry on the ice. Freshman Luke Lush entered the game and performed admirably in the third, stopping all seven shots he faced.
Stefano Durante punctuated the night with a couple of spectacular glove saves to close a needed 6-2 victory for AIC. The redshirt sophomore from Brampton, Ontario, stopped 27 of 29 shots and recorded his and the program’s 7th straight win.
CJ Marottolo took the result in stride. “It’s a bump in the road for us. We’ll take what we can from tonight and move on.” On his opponent, Marottolo simply said “They’re a good team. They’re well coached and obviously they were the better team tonight.”
#20 SHU drops to 18-9-2 (15-7-1-0 AH). They fall two points behind AIC for first place and sit six points up on third placed Army.
The six goals is the most allowed since an 8-2 loss in Happy Valley against Penn State on October 12th.
The Pioneers return home to host the Niagara Purple Eagles. Puck drops at 1:05 pm ET at the Webster Bank Arena for both Friday and Saturday afternoon.
AIC improves to 16-11-1 (16-5-1-0).
Head Coach Eric Lang was pleased with the win. “We’ve got a high buy in right now. I thought we put together a pretty solid game plan but more importantly, our guys executed it. It’s a pretty typical AIC hockey game as far as defending the middle of the ice and giving a really good, scary offensive team some of the bad ice.”
The Jackets travel to Buffalo to play Canisius College this weekend. This is the first time AIC will visit the HarborCenter since winning the Atlantic Hockey Championship against Niagara in overtime on March 23rd, 2019. Puck drops on Friday night at 7:35 pm ET and on Saturday afternoon at 4:05 pm ET.
Sacred Heart and AIC play once more in the regular season, on Wednesday, February 26th in Bridgeport.