Springfield, MA- American International College flies two banners in the MassMutual Center: the 2019 Atlantic Hockey Tournament Championship and the 2019 NCAA West Regional Finalist banners. The first of those came in overtime against Niagara two years ago. On Saturday afternoon, a year after their title defense was upended by the pandemic, the Yellow Jackets hosted the Purple Eagles in the Atlantic Conference Semi-Finals and scored another dramatic win.
The game opened slowly. AIC controlled the shots 9-5 in the opener, but couldn’t beat sophomore goalie Chad Veltri.
Stefano Durante took the shots total in the second held firm until late in the frame. With 2:10 left in the stanza, Walker Sommer broke free behind the defense and beat Durante on a rebound off his breakaway drive. The play was reviewed and AIC protested the call, but Niagara led 1-0 going to the break.
The Jackets struggled to land the equalizer for much of the third. Veltri held firm until former UNLV skater Elijah Barriga cleaned up a puck in the crease with 8:38 left in regulation. The Jackets kept the offensive pressure up and beat Veltri one more time. Justin Cole did the honors on a well placed backhander off a feed from former Providence Friar Jeff Baum with 5:41 left in regulation. Niagara mounted a response but couldn’t net the equalizer. AIC killed the remaining time and secured a 2-1 win and a second consecutive Atlantic Hockey Championship game appearance.
Veltri stopped 26 of 28 shots. The Purple Eagles blocked an additional 21 shots.
“I thought AIC was real good tonight,” commented Niagara Head Coach Jason Lammers. They showed what they are. For our environment and our culture, for us to find a way to get here, we had guys 65-70 days in quarantine. And it’s a great credit to our team and our culture to get here through that.”
Niagara finishes the season at 7-12-3.
Jack Zielinski, Brian Wilson, Eric Cooley, Alternate Captains Justin Kendall, Jack Billings, and Jared Brandt all will graduate and depart from Lewiston, New York.
“Those guys chose to join Niagara after we had three wins in the regular season,” observed Lammers. “They’ve accomplished a lot and have a lot to be proud of, especially for taking a chance on us when things were pretty bleak.”
The seniors earned home ice for the 2019 Tournament and lifted the Purple Eagles to two Atlantic Tournament Final Fours and the 2019 Atlantic Hockey Championship Game.
AIC improved to 14-3-0 after almost seven weeks between games.
“Our goal was to get better and better inside the hockey game,” commented AIC Head Coach Eric Lang. “I felt we were a little too perimeter in the first 30-40 minutes. It was a gutty effort. Down one in the third period, statistically you don’t win those kinds of games. But we found a way tonight.”
To keep his team paced well in their first live competitive game since January 30th, Lang “…was trying to trick our guys for two periods telling them how sharpe they were. Part of playing well is thinking you’re playing well.”
Stefano Durante stopped 17 of 18 shots in the Jackets net.
The Yellow Jackets play in their second consecutive Atlantic Hockey Championship Game on Saturday night at the MassMutual Center. They will face Canisius College. Puck drop is at 7 pm ET.