The 2015-16 Atlantic Hockey season has been full of surprises. They have ranged from Air Force overperforming from its projected preseason finish on the back of young freshmen like goaltender Shane Starrett to Canisius under performing despite 40 point seasons from Shane Conacher and Ralph Cuddemi.
But Army has been one of the biggest head-turners, if not the biggest overall. The Black Knights put together their most successful Atlantic Hockey campaign since 2009-10, finishing sixth in the standings, just as they had six years prior. They parlayed the sixth-place finish into a first-round playoff victory over American International, which sets them up for a quarterfinal matchup against Holy Cross.
The importance of Parker Gahagen
One of the reasons for Army’s success has been their junior goaltender Parker Gahagen. At 12-10-9 overall, he has earned credit for every team victory this season, including upsets of the eventual Atlantic Hockey regular-season champion Robert Morris and a then-ranked Merrimack team. He enters the AHA quarterfinals with a 2.12 goals-against average and .933 save percentage on the year.
Perhaps the most important games Gahagen has played this season in the context of this weekend’s playoff series were the two regular-season meetings with Holy Cross exactly a month ago. The games were a win and a tie for Army and Gahagen carried his team making 38 and then 28 saves on the weekend.
The three points proved to be a monumental difference for the Black Knights, as they were able to earn points in four of the next six games and push into the sixth position in the standings.
Gahagen clearly had the skill in the regular season to carry his team into some big wins but he was unproven so far in his career in the postseason. That notion ended in the first round, as Gahagen’s performance in net not only got his team the series win but earned Gahagen second-star honors for the week in college hockey from the NCAA.
In two shutout performances, Gahagen made 31 and then 19 saves. His team carried the load in the third game of the series but Gahagen made the saves he had to make to ensure his team got the series win.
The upcoming series
Gahagen and Army have had success against Holy Cross already this year, which should give them some confidence heading into this weekends series. One thing that should give them pause however is the fact that the regular season games between the two teams were at Tate Rink in West Point while the games this weekend will be played in Holy Cross’ barn. Army has not been a bad road team this year, going 6-6-2 on the road this season, but all of their big wins including the upset of Merrimack and this past weekends series win all occurred at home.
Holy Cross on the other hand is dominant at home going 11-4-1 in the friendly confines of Hart Recreation Center. The Black Knights will have to overcome their average road performance and the dominance the Crusaders have showcased at home in order to pull the series upset.
How Army can win
Simply put, the Black Knights need Gahagen to have a great couple of games like he did a month ago. He is the key to Army’s success that beyond Tyler Pham and Conor Anderle, do not have the scoring prowess to get involved in a scoring contest. Instead, Army is a team that relies on good defense and goaltending to win close games or to eek out a tie, as evidenced by its league leading nine draws in the regular season.
With their propensity to play close games there is little doubt that the series this weekend will be entertaining and do not be surprised if all three games go to overtime. This just means that the pressure will be on Gahagen even more to make the big saves. Based on his performance this season that is just what Army wants the games to come down too.