By Tim Schmitt
NIAGARA FALLS — The common perception when the Niagara University men’s hockey team moved from College Hockey America to Atlantic Hockey was the program was taking a small step down.
Recent history, however, suggests otherwise.
With a top-heavy group of programs, the Purple Eagles will have their hands full in the league’s Western “pod,” which includes former CHA foe Robert Morris, archrival Canisius, up-and-coming Mercyhurst, and recent juggernauts RIT and Air Force. Niagara will meet each of these teams three times, while the Purple Eagles will do battle with the teams from the Western pod — American International, Army, Bentley, Connecticut, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart — two times apiece.
RIT is hoping to ride a wave after last season’s improbable run to the Frozen Four, in which the Tigers beat national powerhouses Denver and New Hampshire.
“We’re excited for a new year and know we have to prove ourselves all over again,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, who was named the Division I coach of the year last season. “We know we will have a target on our back.”
There are holes to fill, however, as Atlantic Hockey rookie of the year Chris Tanev signed with Vancouver while all-league goalie Jared DeMichiel and conference defenseman of the year Dan Ringwald are both gone as well.
Still, with forwards Cameron Burt and Adrew Favot, RIT is the clearcut favorite in what could be an interesting mix of teams.
Here’s a look at the other squads, in order of the preseason coaches poll:
• Mercyhurst (15-20-3, 15-10-3 AHA in 2009-10): With underwhelming but effectve Mike Gurtler, the Lakers can tangle with anyone, as was evidenced by a 4-4 tie at Michigan on Oct. 2.
• Air Force (16-15-6 overall; 14-8-6 AHA): After three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Falcons watched RIT grab national headlines with a Frozen Four run. The non-conference schedule is brutal, but former Hobey Baker candidate Jacques Lamoureux leads a solid bunch.
• Niagara (12-20-4): With Bryan Haczyk, Paul Zanette and Marc Zanette, there’s talent for an upper-tier run, but the Purple Eagles have to learn to close games out.
• Robert Morris (21-13-4): Old CHA foe brings rough-and-tumble game to Atlantic Hockey. Nathan Longpre was one of the CHA’s best, and he’s poised for a big season.
• Canisius (15-16-6, 12-12-4 AHA): Cory Conacher and Vinnie Scarsella make a lethal one-two punch for a Golden Griffins group that keeps steadily climbing. When Niagara and Canisius meet up at Dwyer on Feb. 19, tickets will be tough to come by.
• Sacred Heart (21-13-4, 16-9-3 AHA): With key losses to graduation, the Pioneers will struggle to stay in the league’s upper half, but watch for R.J. Boyd, a Florida draft pick.
• Holy Cross (12-19-6, 10-13-5 AHA): The Crusaders came on as last season progressed and a strong recruiting class could help for improvement.
• Army (11-19-6, 10-12-6 AHA): The Black Kinghts will count on Cody Omilusik for a big offensive season and goalie Jay Clark to keep the net clean.
• Bentley (12-19-4, 10-15-3 AHA): Dustin Cloutier and Erik Peterson return healthy after injury-plagued seasons. Is it enough?
• Connecticut (7-27-3, 6-19-3 AHA): The goaltending situation has to get better for the Huskies, who had one netminder miss last year with an injury, and another quit before the Christmas break.
• American Int’l: (5-28-2, 5-19-4): The doormat of Atlantic Hockey is hoping all-freshman Adam Pleskach can improve on his 15 goals.