Even with first-round playoff byes secured, league champion Niagara and host Air Force have plenty of motivation to win in their final regular-season series.
“This week is about momentum headed into the playoffs,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. “We don’t want to go into the postseason on a three-game losing streak and they don’t want to go in with two losses.”
Air Force’s split last weekend assured the Falcons (15-11-7, 13-7-5 AHA) would finish no worse than fourth place, the final spot earning a bye into the Atlantic Hockey Association quarterfinals. With a three-point lead over third-place Connecticut, Air Force may need a split to clinch second.
No. 14 Niagara has history to play for too.
The Purple Eagles (21-6-5, 20-3-2 AHA) are two victories away from tying the AHA record for most league wins and would do so in one less game than the Rochester Institute of Technology, which advanced to the 2010 Frozen Four that season. The 46 league points from two more victories would surpass the 45 recorded by RIT that season.
Niagara is eighth in the Pairwise rankings, which mimics the NCAA Tournament selection process, and could use more wins to improve its chance at an at-large bid, the league’s first, if the Purple Eagles were upset in the playoffs.
“They need to pad their Pairwise numbers and we need to go in and lock up second place,” Air Force senior Kyle De Laurell said. “A good weekend will really help our confidence going into the playoffs.”
It will take a strong performance from the Falcons to get a win, let alone two.
“I think the league Player of the Year will be (junior goalie Carson) Chubak,” Serratore said. “Ultimately, it will be whoever Niagara decides to nominate. Niagara goes four lines and six defensemen strong. They are very deep.”
The Falcons want to play well this weekend to remind the Purple Eagles that the league’s automatic NCAA qualifier as postseason champion is up for grabs.
“They are obviously a top team,” Falcons junior defenseman Adam McKenzie said. “It is definitely a big weekend to show that it will not be that easy and that you’re going to have to come through us if you are going to win that automatic bid.”
AIR FORCE’S HOCKEY WEEKEND
Niagara (21-6-5, 20-3-2, first place AHA) at Air Force (15-11-7, 13-7-5 second), 7:05 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Coaches: Niagara – David Burkholder (212-171-50, 12th season); Air Force — Frank Serratore (270-261-58, 16th season).
All-time series: Niagara leads 29-15-4 (4-2-1 AHA)
Top players: Niagara – Ryan Murphy, jr. F (15g, 17a); Giancarlo Iuorio, sr. F (17g, 12a); Marc Zanette, sr. F (9g, 16a); Ryan Rashid, jr. F (9g, 12a); Kevin Ryan, jr. D (1g, 20a); Patrick Divjak, jr. F (6g, 14a); Carson Chubak, jr. G (21-4-5, 1.77 goals-against average, .942 saves percentage). Air Force — Kyle De Laurell, sr., F (16g, 14a); Tony Thomas, jr., F (9g, 16a); Cole Gunner, soph., F (6g, 19a); Stephen Carew, sr., F (10g, 14a); Chad Demers, soph., F (8g, 13a); John Kruse, sr. F (6g, 13a); Jason Torf, jr. G (15-11-7, 2.30 gaa, .921 saves).
Notes: Niagara backup goalie Cody Campbell (4 appearances, 0-1, 7.66 goals against, .792 saves percentage) is a Colorado Springs native. … Niagara’s No. 13 ranking in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll is the 17-year-old program’s highest since the 1999-2000 season. USCHO.com, the poll The Gazette and Associated Press use, rates the program at No. 14. … Chubak received the league goalie of the week award for the seventh time this season. The Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, native is seventh in Division I in goals-against average (1.77), and fourth in the nation in save percentage (.942). The two-time AHA goalie of the month leads D1 with six shutouts. … Niagara has an 11-8-2 record at Cadet Ice Arena. … Air Force was the preseason pick to win the AHA regular-season championship with eight first-place votes. Niagara was selected second with three top votes. … Torf is averaging 27.1 saves and is on pace to surpass the season record of 989 saves in 37 games (26.7) set by program great Andrew Volkening. … Torf is second in the nation in minutes played (1,981) behind Western Michigan’s Frank Slubowski (1,985) and ahead of Northern Michigan’s Jared Coreau, 1,945. … AFA is allowing just 24.3 shots per game in the past nine contests with a 5-2-2 mark to show for it.