Air Force has been the class of Atlantic Hockey since its addition to the league in 2006-07, winning three playoff championships and earning a piece of the regular-season title last season. The Falcons lose five key pieces but return two preseason All-Americans, and that's why Air Force is favored to repeat as champion.
Mercyhurst has pushed Air Force to the limit in the past two title matches and will certainly be in the hunt once again. So, too, will Rochester Institute of Technology, a semifinalist the past two seasons and winner of two regular-season championships in three seasons.
The chase for the final home berth in the quarterfinals should be pretty wild. The coaches have picked Holy Cross for fourth and Canisius for fifth, but Inside College Hockey has it the other way. Army is tabbed for sixth, the final spot not required to play an opening-round elimination game.
Bentley was the up-and-comer that finished fourth last season, but the Falcons lose tremendous offensive production to graduation. Sacred Heart was picked for eighth and Connecticut ninth, but those two spots could flip-flop depending on which squad can get better goaltending. American International returns eight of its top 11 scorers, but that's not saying much for a team that did not produce a double-digit scorer for the first time since 2004-05.
Twelve of 19 all-stars return this season, including first-teamers Jacques Lamoureux and Andrew Volkening of Air Force, Owen Meyer of Army and Dan Ringwald of RIT. The other all-stars making a return are Steve Cameron, Ryan Zapolski and Scott Pitt of Mercyhurst; Matt Fairchild of Air Force; Jason Weeks and Carl Hudson of Canisius; Al Mazur of RIT; and Kyle Rank of Bentley.
Canisius has climbed from ninth place to sixth to fifth over the past three seasons. It is no coincidence the Griffins have improved goal scoring from 86 to 93 to 114, while cutting their goals allowed from 130 to 121 to 111.
Coach Dave Smith has brought in some good talent the past several seasons and the results are promising. The Griffs lost only two players to graduation, and eight seniors anchor a lineup that returns its top 13 scorers. Senior Andrew Loewen (2.81 goals-against average, .919 save percentage) came on strong late last season, and sophomore Dan Morrison (2.97 GAA, .908 sv pct.) is a more-than-capable backup.
With a capable tandem in net and a burgeoning offensive lineup, there's no reason Canisius can't secure home ice for the quarterfinals.
Primed for a Fall
Bentley's return to the top half of the league last season was no surprise. The Falcons had senior leadership and got outstanding play from freshman netminder Kyle Rank (2.68 GAA, .912 sv pct.). However, coach Ryan Soderquist is going to have to replace six seniors who accounted for 135 points last season and 425 career points. Bentley returns enough offense and the all-star Rank to remain viable for a first-round bye.
Pressure to Perform
RIT stormed on to the Atlantic Hockey scene in 2006-07, winning a regular-season championship, but the Tigers had to sit out the playoffs for their inaugural season. No matter; RIT took Army to the final day of the 2007-08 season before settling for second place. The Tigers returned to the top of the league last season, although a final-day setback to Air Force pulled the Falcons into a tie for the title with them.
The problem is that RIT has not found a way to escape the semifinal round. Air Force crushed the Tigers 5-0 in 2008, and Mercyhurst shook off a last-minute tying goal in regulation to post a 5-4 overtime triumph in 2009.
Coach Wayne Wilson has lost a load of talent the past two years to graduation and early departure to the pros. Five graduates will take 102 points out of the lineup, but five of six players who posted double-digit goals last season will return, led by sophomore Tyler Brenner (35 points), all-star defenseman Dan Ringwald (33) and sophomore Cameron Burt (32). Louis Menard has moved on, leaving the netminder duties to senior Jared DeMichiel (2.70 GAA, .905 sv pct.). The task will not be easy, but the Tigers still have the talent to dethrone Air Force.
Toughest Act to Follow
Mercyhurst has done just about all it can to rip the title from Air Force but has come up short. The Lakers dropped a 5-4 double-overtime decision in the 2008 Atlantic Hockey final and lost 2-0 in the 2009 title game. Coach Rick Gotkin's team regained its offensive swagger last season, lighting the lamp 155 times to rank second in the nation behind national champion Boston University. However, the Lakers took a hit with graduation losses of Matt Pierce (24 goals, 44 points) and Brett Robinson (10 goals, 38 points). Still, Mercyhurst returns 11 players who posted double-digit points. If second-team all-star Ryan Zapolski (2.22 GAA, .934 sv pct.) can repeat his performance in net, Mercyhurst might get a third crack at winning the title.
This is a tough call, but at least both players reside in Colorado Springs: Jacques Lamoureux and Andrew Volkening of Air Force.
Inside College Hockey has named Lamoureux a first-team preseason All-American. As a sophomore he established an Atlantic Hockey record with 33 goals to go with 20 assists -- his 53 points rank sixth in the single-season AHA/MAAC records. Fifteen of his goals came on the power play, and nine went for game winners.
INCH has named Volkening a third-team preseason All-American. The Air Force backups saw no time last season with Volkening logging 2,502-plus minutes, missing only 15:38 of empty net time. In the past two seasons, Volkening has produced the second- and third-best goals-against marks (1.97 with six shutouts in 2008-09, 2.09 in 2007-08) in league history. Air Force has lost just one Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal playoff game since Volkening was installed in the lineup for the 2007 title game win over Army, and now he has an NCAA tourney win over Michigan and double-overtime loss to Vermont.
My edge goes to Volkening, because the puck stops there.
Eric Delong, Sacred Heart
The forward from Oakville, Manitoba, enjoyed three very productive seasons with the Portage Terriers in the Manitoba junior league, registering 261 points. The 2009 Canadian Junior A Player of the Year had 37 goals and 51 assists in 2006-07, 30 goals and 50 assists in 2007-08 and posted a team-high 46 goals and 47 assists last season. Inside College Hockey considers Delong to be one of the top 20 recruits among forwards.
Jeff Hajner of Air Force has never made an Atlantic Hockey all-star team, yet he's the second-leading career point producer among active players, with 94 points. Hajner posted 13 goals and 14 assists as a freshman, and tied for the team scoring lead as a sophomore with 15 goals and 23 assists. Hajner was the Falcons' No. 6 scorer last season with 10 goals and 19 assists. Hajner knows how to produce in pressure situations, posting four points in the quarterfinals win over Sacred Heart, three assists in a semifinal win over Bentley, and an assist in the NCAA tourney win over Michigan.
Mark It Down
Five things you can take to the bank in Atlantic Hockey this season.
1. Air Force will continue its domination. The Falcons have improved their overall record in each season of Atlantic Hockey play, going from 11 wins in 2005-06 (their last year in College Hockey America) to 19, 21 and 28. Air Force knows how to travel and does it well. The team lost five talented players but returns three double-digit scorers. As long as the Falcons have Andrew Volkening in net, the title hopes run through Colorado Springs.
2. Volkening will start every contest again. Air Force coach Frank Serratore made it very clear at the start of last season that he would ride Volkening as long as he could. A 13-0 start backed up that idea, and Volkening rewarded the Falcons with a third Atlantic Hockey playoff title and a second-round NCAA tourney berth. There's no need to look in any other direction. Volkening has 53 career wins and a stellar 2.08 goals-against average, making him one of the nation's elite goalies.
3. Owen Meyer will make a run at the AHA/MAAC career scoring mark. The senior Army forward is the top goal scorer among active players, with 51. Meyer missed six games due to injury last season and still managed a team-high 19 goals, following seasons of 11 (freshman) and 21 (sophomore). Tyler McGregor (Holy Cross '06) holds the league record with 70 but probably not for long.
4. Sacred Heart's Quebec pipeline could take a major hit. Shaun Hannah established quite a recruiting trail through Quebec, and his resignation will surely hurt the Pioneers in the province. Before he left, though, Hannah did recruit talented forward Eric Delong from Manitoba.
5. A televised championship is coming, but not this year. The final College Hockey America title game will be televised by CBS College Sports in March. When the CHA folds, perhaps Atlantic Hockey will secure a spot in CBS College's lineup in 2011.