Falcon Junior forward Evan Giesler (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Academy Athletics)

Atlantic Hockey Championship Weekend Preview

The Atlantic Hockey Conference is an entertaining and gritty league featuring some of college hockey’s smallest schools and most entertaining fan bases. Only one team will make the NCAA Tournament based on the pairwise rankings. So there will be plenty to play for this weekend in Rochester. Let’s take a look at the matchups.

#1 Mercyhurst University Lakers (21-11-4) vs #7 Robert Morris University Colonials (17-19-3)

The two western Pennsylvania teams travel to Rochester to faceoff for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Robert Morris has played in three of the last four Atlantic Hockey Championship games, last winning in 2014. They’ve ridden an upset ride to get here. In the first round, they hosted Bentley and scratched out a three-game series win on Neville Island. In the next round, they traveled to Worcester to play the Holy Cross Crusaders and they dominated at the Hart Center in two games. The Colonials have played more playoff hockey than anyone else in Rochester, but the team is prepared for the title round. Brady Ferguson and Alex Tonge are the 2nd and 3rd leading scorers in the conference and Ferguson is tied for the conference lead in assists. Luke Lynch has contributed with crucial goals, and the Colonials are fourth in Goals Allowed. Francis Marotte has secured the job and played like a championship goaltender. They will be a tough out.

Mercyhurst has been a competitive team all year. They’ve landed out of conference wins against Penn State and Wisconsin and closed the regular season strong to win their second AHC Regular Season crown. With the first round bye and a two-game sweep of the Sacred Heart Pioneers, the Lakers are the most rested team entering the final weekend. They also rank as the top offensive team in the conference. Derek Barach is the leading scorer, ranked sixth in total points. Jack Riley, Jonathan Charbonneau, and Joseph Duszak provide more offense and punch to a potent Laker lineup. The team is only middle of the pack defensively though. Brandon Wildung has been up and down all season, with a recent rise in play in the playoffs.

Ultimately, Robert Morris doesn’t have much in the tank after two hard rounds of playoff hockey. And they have to face the most complete team in the conference. I’ll pick Mercyhurst to win with a third-period explosion doing in the Colonials.

#2 Canisius College Golden Griffins (19-16-2) vs # 3 Air Force Academy Falcons (20-14-5)

The reigning champions look for another spot in the NCAA Tournament against the Atlantic’s best scorer and best team for much of the season. The Canisius College Golden Griffins don’t have to travel far from Buffalo to Rochester. They paced the conference for much of the season and were in the rankings for much of the year. Dylan McLaughlin finished as the conference’s scoring champion and led the Griffs to an 8-1 romp over American International to open the playoffs. Nick Hutchinson and Ryan Schmeltzer are also quality contributors offensively. The problem for Canisius is a maddening habit of inconsistency. The Griffs split just under half of their Atlantic series this season and in a single knock out situation, you can’t afford any inconsistencies.

Frank Serratore’s Air Force Falcons have traveled a long road, but are back in Rochester. The Falcons earned a first-round bye and were rewarded with a trip to West Point to play a hard series against Army. They won in three games, capping the series with a tense 1-0 overtime win and look poised for another title run. Air Force boasts the best defense in the conference, allowing a league-low 2.31 goals per game. Goaltender Billy Christopoulos had a tough season start filling in for Shane Starrett, but he found his wings and secured the job, especially in the Army series. Matt Koch and Phil Boje bring experienced blue line play and big checking ability to support Christopoulos. The problem for Air Force is their offense. They rank 7th for goals per game and their highest scorer, Erik Baskin, ranks 29th in the conference. This team does not depend on offensive punch to make their way. Fortunately, the defense is normally so good that they don’t have to. They’ll lean on Christopoulos for a playoff win and a second straight title.

While I have concerns about Air Force’s offensive abilities, I have no worries about their abilities to win. The Falcons were one win from the Frozen Four last year and return much of the same core and are led by the unflappable Frank Serratore on the bench. Canisius hasn’t proven they can win big playoff games yet. For that reason, I’m picking Air Force in an ugly, defensive game.

In the hypothetical Mercyherst vs Air Force game, I think the Lakers have a more complete package offensively than the Falcons, so I’d pick the Lakers.