Atlantic Hockey Tournament Preview: Can Canisius repeat again from the 7 seed?

Canisius College's Kyle Gibbons celebrates with the 2013 Atlantic Hockey Association Tournament trophy. - Tom Wolf Imaging

Air Force has a bye in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament for an eighth straight season.

Canisius College took the Atlantic Hockey Association by surprise last March by coming out of the seven seed to win the league's postseason tournament. The Golden Griffins find themselves in the same position this season as the tournament starts. Will Dave Smith's team or another low seed surprise, or will it be one of the league's front runners that have a bye this weekend?

The top four seeds, Mercyhurst, Bentley, Air Force and UConn, earned byes into the quarterfinals, so those four teams will have the weekend off.

The 5-12 and 6-11 matchups are the only mismatches on paper, as just three points separate seventh place from 10th place.

Let's take a look at each of the four series going on around the league this weekend.

No. 12 Army @ No. 5 Robert Morris

Robert Morris is 11-4-3 since the calendar turned 2014, but the Colonials finished the regular 0-2-1 over the last three games. Army won just five games all season, but two of those came over the last two weekends, including a shocking 4-3 victory at UConn.

Army freshman goaltender Parker Gahagen will have his work cut out for him this weekend as he gets peppered by one of the best offensive talents in the country that no one has ever heard of. RMU junior Cody Wydo has 23 goals and 17 assists on the season, marking the second season in a row the Allen Park, Mich. native has scored more than 20 goals. It is also the second straight season he has led or tied for the conference lead in overall goal scoring.

It will be interesting to see if Army can carry momentum from its last two weekends and to watch to see if RMU can get back on track following a disappointing end to the regular season.

Army Robert Morris
Head Coach Brian Riley Derek Schooley
Record 5-26-0 (5-22-0) 13-16-5 (13-9-5)
Home/Away Split 4-13-0 (Away) 9-6-2 (Home)
Goals Per Game 2.22 (12th) 3.52 (3rd)
Goals Against Per Game 4.07 (12th) 2.89 (T-6th)
Power Play Percentage 13.6 (10th) 16.9 (8th)
Penalty Kill Percentage 73.6 (12th) 76.1 (11th)
Top Scorer Reuschlein/Kozlak (19) Cody Wydo (40)
Leading Goal Scorer C.J. Reuschlein (11) Cody Wydo (23)
Assists Leader Kozlak/Carlisle/Alvarez (10) Zac Lynch (20)
Projected Starting Goalie Parker Gahagen (3.61/.906) Terry Shafer (2.96/.914)

No. 11 American International @ No. 6 Niagara

These two teams split their regular season meetings and neither team comes into the postseason on a high note. The Purple Eagles were 1-3-1 over the last five games while the Yellow Jackets are losers of four straight after having gone 4-1 in the five previous outings.

Niagara has the advantage in both scoring offense and scoring defense, but surprisingly, Gary Wright's AIC team has the better numbers on both the power play and penalty kill.

AIC senior forward Jon Puskar might be the best offensive player on the ice this weekend and teammate David Norris, a freshman, isn't far behind. However, what will likely make the difference for Dave Burkholder's Niagara team is its ability in the defensive end.

This weekend will be a battle of freshmen goaltenders as the top two players at that position for both teams are rookies.

American International Niagara
Head Coach Gary Wright Dave Burkholder
Record 10-23-1 (9-17-1) 11-18-5 (11-11-5)
Home/Away Split 6-13-1 (Away) 7-7-1 (Home)
Goals Per Game 2.74 (9th) 3.30 (4th)
Goals Against Per Game 3.96 (11th) 2.89 (T-6th)
Power Play Percentage 21.1 (4th) 11.4 (12th)
Penalty Kill Percentage 83.1 (4th) 81.5 (7th)
Top Scorer Jon Puskar (34) Isaac Kohls (24)
Leading Goal Scorer Jon Puskar (17) Isaac Kohls (12)
Assists Leader David Norris (26) Hugo Turcotte (15)
Projected Starting Goalie Hunter Leisner (3.78/.899) Jackson Teichroeb (2.87/.902)

No. 10 Sacred Heart @ No. 7 Canisius

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, Canisius came out of the seven seed to win the conference tournament last year, but unlike last year, the Golden Griffins are stumbling into the postseason. Canisius is 1-4 over the past five games, including last weekend's two losses against RIT.

Sacred Heart is one of the feel good stories in all of college hockey this season. C.J. Marottolo's team won just two games a year ago, but this year's team equaled that total after just three games, including an opening night upset victory at top-ranked UMass Lowell. The Pioneers ended up with 10 more wins this season than it had a year ago.

Canisius has the clear advantage in the special teams battle, but don't underestimate the ability of Pioneers goaltender Alex Vazzano to steal a game, or possibly two. The Vermont transfer can come up big as evidenced by his performance in early season wins at UMass Lowell and against Bentley.

Another advantage for Dave Smith's Canisius club is its experience in the postseason and confidence in the ability to turn it on come March. The two teams split their regular season meetings with Canisius winning, 5-4, and Sacred Heart prevailing a night later by a score of 3-2.

Sacred Heart Canisius
Head Coach C.J. Marottolo Dave Smith
Record 12-22-0 (11-16-0) 12-19-3 (11-13-3)
Home/Away Split 6-12-0 (Away) 6-6-2 (Home)
Goals Per Game 2.78 (T-7th) 3.00 (T-5th)
Goals Against Per Game 3.67 (10th) 2.89 (T-6th)
Power Play Percentage 13.3 (11th) 22.1 (3rd)
Penalty Kill Percentage 76.8 (10th) 82.1 (6th)
Top Scorer Justin Danforth (29) Kyle Gibbons (30)
Leading Goal Scorer Drew George (12) Kyle Gibbons (13)
Assists Leader Justin Danforth (24) Ben Dadford (18)
Projected Starting Goalie Alex Vazzano (3.64/.897) Tony Capobianco (2.98/.909)

No. 9 RIT @ No. 8 Holy Cross

Holy Cross is the home team and the higher seed, but one could argue that RIT is the favorite in this series. The Tigers have won three straight games heading into the postseason, including road games at Air Force and Canisius.

The Crusaders are hot entering March as well, having won three of four and five of seven. Paul Pearl's Holy Cross team skated to a 3-3 draw and a 4-2 win at RIT earlier this season.

A likely key in this series, especially if RIT is going to knock off the home team, is special teams. The Tigers have the top penalty kill unit and the fifth best power play in the conference. Holy Cross is ninth in power play and eighth in penalty kill.

Another interesting nugget is that Holy Cross is far better away from the Hart Recreation Center than they are on home ice. The Crusaders are 9-7-1 away from home while a paltry 3-10-2 in the cozy confines of campus.

RIT Holy Cross
Head Coach Wayne Wilson Paul Pearl
Record 11-18-5 (10-14-3) 12-19-3 (11-13-3)
Home/Away Split 5-9-2 (Away) 3-10-2 (Home)
Goals Per Game 2.48 (11th) 2.52 (10th)
Goals Against Per Game 3.11 (9th) 2.67 (4th)
Power Play Percentage 20.9 (5th) 14.3 (9th)
Penalty Kill Percentage 88.0 (1st) 81.4 (8th)
Top Scorer Michael Colavecchia (29) Adam Schmidt (25)
Leading Goal Scorer Colavecchia/Schuler (12) Adam Schmidt (13)
Assists Leader Greg Noyes (18) Matt Vidal (16)
Projected Starting Goalie Mike Rotolo (2.72/.912) Matt Ginn (2.80/.914)

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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