Canisius defenseman Matt Stief.

Atlantic Hockey Championship Weekend Preview

Championship weekend is a welcome sight. Last year, all six men’s DI collegiate conference tournaments were canceled before postseason trophies could be awarded. This year there will be at most limited crowds, and mostly no crowds. But at least there will be postseason trophies awarded. For the Atlantic Hockey Association, their postseason semi-finals and final will be held at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, the first time western Massachusetts has hosted the conference’s championship weekend. What are the matchups?

American International College Yellow Jackets (13-3-0) vs Niagara Purple Eagles (7-11-3)

This is a rematch of the last Atlantic Hockey Championship game, two years ago in Buffalo. AIC won in overtime to claim the first postseason trophy in program history and the first NCAA Tournament trip. Now, the Yellow Jackets are looking to repeat and hold the Riley Trophy.

AIC has the best possession unit in the Atlantic this season. In 16 games, the Jackets have allowed a league low 32 goals for a goals against average of 2.00, the best in the conference and 6th in the nation. Stefano Durante has been admirable in net with a .906 save percentage, but AIC has allowed only 22.75 shots per game. That’s by far the best in the conference and second in the nation to only Minnesota State.

Meanwhile, the offense has scored 3.69 goals per game. That’s tops in the conference and 6th in the nation. Six players have double digit scorers and three 16 point scorers in Tobias Fladeby, Chris Theodore and Chris Dodero. Fladeby boasts the conference’s best and the nation’s third best goals per game rate (0.69) in only 13 of the team’s 16 games. Justin Cole, Elijah Barriga, and Brennan Kapcheck are the other double digit scorers. Kapcheck, the Jackets’ captain, has the sixth highest points per game (0.88) in the country.

The power play (23.1%) is 12th in the country but the penalty kill (77.1%) is only tied for 36th and second worst in the Atlantic. If AIC is to win on home ice, they’ll need to play to their possession strengths. Head Coach Eric Lang has performed well this season and has more work to do this weekend.

AIC has one significant disadvantage going into the weekend. Due to Covid-induced cancelations, the Yellow Jackets have not played a hockey game against another college hockey team since defeating Holy Cross 3-0 on January 30th. That’s an unheard of 41 days between competitive games in season. Niagara has their playoff legs under them. They don’t have any rust to knock off, especially after a pair of exciting playoff trips.

Chad Veltri has powered Niagara to a road win over Mercyhurst and a road playoff series win over Robert Morris, including a double overtime game in which the sophomore from Pittsburgh stopped 49 shots. Across four playoff games, Veltri has recorded a .944 save percentage. He is playing his best hockey of the season going into the semi-finals. That performance has fed into Niagara’s penalty kill, which is the best in the conference at 84.6%.

The general offense and defense rank middle of the pack in the Atlantic, 7th in both goals for and against. Six double digit scorers wear purple jerseys, including a pair of 14 point scorers in Walker Sommer and Ludwig Stenlund. Sommer scored the game winner against Robert Morris in game 3 of their playoff series. Jack Billings has also been a strong offensive playoff performer. The senior from Oak Lawn, Illinois, and transfer from Salve Regina scored three goals in two games against Robert Morris including the double overtime winner in game 2 of their series.

Head Coach Jason Lammers has his team in a good spot, but with a challenge to overcome.

Prediction: AIC 4-2. The Yellow Jackets have a tough task in beating Chad Veltri. But this tournament is on their home ice and until they are out, the tournament and the Riley Trophy is theirs to lose.

Army West Point Black Knights (15-5-1) vs Canisius College Golden Griffins (10-5-0)

Two New York teams travel to western Massachusetts led by the best goalies in the Atlantic conference this season.

Canisius performed incredibly well in their first two playoff games against the Rochester Institute of Technology, winning 5-2 and 6-2. Jacob Barczewski stopped 35 and 29 shots in those games and boasts the conference’s best save percentage (.931) and second best goals against average (2.19).

Keaton Mastrodonato leads the Golden Griffin offense with nine goals, nine assists, and 18 points including four points across the quarterfinal series against RIT. Mitchell Martan is the only other double digit scorer (5-9-14), but three players have nine points (Lee Lapid, Grant Meyer, and Ryan Miotto) and the Griffins have the Atlantic’s third best goals-per-game output.

The only concerns are the special teams. Canisius ranked second last in the Atlantic on the power play (16.7%) and seventh out of 12 in penalty kill (80%). Trevor Large’s unit has a door to their first Conference Championship game appearance since 2014 and the first Title win since 2014, but a hard task ahead.

Army is maybe the nation’s hottest team going into championship weekend. Brian Riley’s team has won 13 consecutive games dating back to late January. Trevin Kozlowski keyed the run from between the pipes. The senior from Los Angeles, CA, boasts the conference’s best and the nation’s seventh best GAA (1.83) and the Atlantic’s second best save percentage (.925). That performance includes a 30 save shutout and a 49 save triple overtime win in a sweep over Sacred Heart in the quarterfinals.

The Black Knights’ defense is the conference’s second best (2.10 goals per game) and allows the second fewest shots (26.33).

Army’s offense isn’t quite a match, but is no slouch at fifth in the conference. Junior Colin Bilek is the best individual offensive player in the conference and has the second most goals in the entire nation (18), tied with Minnesota’s Sampo Ranta and only trailing Wisconsin’s Cole Caulfield (28). Bilek scored the triple OT winner over Sacred Heart. The Brighton, Michigan, native isn’t a solo act. Nine Knights have double digit points. Eric Butte and Mason Krueger both have 11 assists and John Zimmerman leads in blue line scoring with 14.

Army has the second best power play (24.0%) but the conference’s second worst penalty kill. (77.1%). Playing even strength defense favors the Knights.

Prediction: Army 3-2. The Knights are rolling through the Atlantic looking for their first postseason tournament trophy in program history. Canisius will challenge the Knights, but Army is the conference’s hottest team.

Championship Game Prediction: AIC 4-3. 

Army and AIC have met four times with season with the Yellow Jackets besting the Black Knights three times. These teams share connections at the coaching level and make for an interesting hypothetical championship matchup. It’s pretty much a tossup. This game would be played on AIC’s home ice, but Army has beaten the Jackets in Springfield once this season. Ultimately, I’d pick AIC by a narrow margin just because of the rounded offensive punch, but any of the four teams going to Springfield can win the Riley Trophy and secure an NCAA Tournament spot.

The Semi-Finals are at 2 pm ET and 7 pm ET on Friday and the Championship is at 7 pm ET.