It seemed as if Atlantic Hockey had finally arrived.
The conference had a Frozen Four team (RIT 2010) and earned its first at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament (Niagara 2013). Teams picked up big wins last year against Michigan, Alaska, Quinnipiac, Maine, Ohio State and Miami.
Then came this season.
Atlantic Hockey is 10-53-5 this season against the other five conferences this season.
Granted the league has some quality wins this season. Sacred Heart started by defeating the preseason No. 1 UMass-Lowell. Canisius beat then-No. 17 Denver and just this past weekend Holy Cross held off No. 7 Boston College.
But overall, the league has struggled to be consistent out of conference.
It hasn’t been pretty for Niagara or Canisius, either. The Purple Eagles went 0-7-0 in its non-conference schedule with just two games, the season-opening weekend against Clarkson, at home.
The Golden Griffins are 1-4-0 in non-conference games, with a pair left at the Catamount Tournament where they play No. 7 UMass-Lowell and host Vermont, which is receiving votes in this week’s national poll. All the Griffs non-conference games have been on the road.
While the wins and losses are black and white there are nuances to the games. Opponents no longer circle Atlantic Hockey teams as automatic wins.
“I think we have so much respect now nationally. ... It’s not like we haven’t been in games,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think it’s no longer an emerging league. There’s too many good coaches, too many good players, too many guys playing in pro hockey from this league to have to be doubting ourselves any more.”
“I heard other coaches talking last year that Atlantic Hockey might have snuck up on some people,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People see the level of coaching and the level of recruits. It’s always a challenge on the road and a lot of non-conference games are on the road. ... Coaches and players are working” their “butts off to win.”
Take a look at the league and the coaching talent is there along with caliber of players. Each team may not have half a dozen NHL draft picks, but two players, Cory Conacher (Canisius) and Christopher Tanev (RIT) are current NHLers with a number of others playing in the AHL. The difference in facilities isn’t as stark as it once was with constant improvements and upgrades (see the HarborCenter in downtown Buffalo for an upcoming example).
So what’s the biggest hindrance?
It’s the word no one wants to talk about, but it’s the reality of college game. The NCAA limit is 18 full scholarships. Atlantic Hockey only allows 12. The scholarship gap puts Atlantic Hockey at a competitive disadvantage.
Close games are plentiful and provide some sense of moral victories. The conference has been able to compete with many of the big dogs of college hockey, but teams have failed to consistently get over the hump for wins.
Six scholarships make a difference.
Break it down and that’s an entire stating lineup – a goalie, two defensemen and three forwards. It’s two lines. It’s an entire defensive corps.
Atlantic Hockey can win a few hands, but they’re not playing with a complete deck.
Generally speaking, the top two lines can roll with the best in the country. Get into third and fourth lines and one starts to see a difference.
That means if your third line can’t stay with the other team’s, you’re rolling out your first line a lot more and dealing with fatigue as the game wears on. And a number of non-conference losses have come down to play in the third period.
Western New York saw that first hand in the NCAA Tournament last year as both Canisius and Niagara had third-period leads against Quinnipiac and North Dakota only to lose those games as depth became a determining factor.
Programs will get some relief over the next two seasons as Atlantic Hockey will increase to 13 scholarships next season and 14 for the 2015-16 season.
This weekend, Canisius and Niagara stay in conference.
The Golden Griffins and Purple Eagles are both in a three-way tie for fourth place in Atlantic Hockey as their seven points are three behind league-leader Mercyhurst.
The Griffs, fresh off a three-point weekend against Connecticut, travel to West Point for two games against Army.
The Purple Eagles return after a week off for a pair of games at UConn. Niagara is still searching for its first road win of the season.