WEST POINT – The season opener was a nightmare and hard luck followed for another two weeks but Army hockey has finally rediscovered its winning ways.
The Black Knights have won four and tied one over their last five games, slowly putting aside an 0-5-1 start. More importantly, Army has earned seven of a possible nine points in the Atlantic Hockey standings over the last three league contests to avoid losing contact with the league leaders.
Army (2-2-2 AHA) plays a two-game set at Bentley (4-4), with afternoon contests on Friday and Saturday in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Other than the opening 7-0 loss at No. 12 Providence, “we’ve been in every game,’’ said head coach Brian Riley. “There’s a lot of games we could have won that we lost. I give our guys credit. We hung with it and now we’re on a little bit of a roll.’’
It’s a very similar scenario to last season when Army opened 1-4 before going on an unprecedented 14-1-1 roll before falling to Canisius in a semifinal playoff that went to overtime.
The recent turnaround came Oct. 22 when Army blanked defending league champion American International 2-0. Following were two home wins over ECAC foes Princeton (4-1) and Yale (6-3). Last weekend at Niagara, the Black Knights managed one point in a 3-3 draw and left Western New York with a 4-1 victory – that’s 19 goals to eight allowed over the last five games.
“Once we found ourselves on the right side of a close game it gave us confidence,’’ Riley said.
Army’s special teams play has been very effective during the current streak. The penalty kill has allowed one goal over the last 16 chances while the power play has netted five goals on 22 opportunities (following a 2-for-19 start), scoring at least once over the last four games. The PK ranks No. 15 in the nation (.865 percentage).
Goalie seizes the moment
The emergence of netminder Gavin Abric has been a huge factor. The 20-year-old did not see action last season as a freshman. Justin Evenson backstopped the first two games before Riley tasked Abric in the second game of a series with Rochester Institute of Technology. He made 18 saves and was perfect in a three-round shootout as Army gained its first two league points. “He has not looked back since,’’ Riley said of Abric.
Abric got both starts in his native Wisconsin against the Badgers on Oct. 14-15, making 70 stops and allowing just three goals in a pair of setbacks that Army was within striking distance until the closing minutes. He made 43 stops in a 4-3 setback to AIC and 36 saves the next night for his first collegiate win and shutout.
“He is giving us an opportunity to win every game,’’ Riley said. “He’s such a hard-working kid, so when he went in the guys were excited. He really calms everything down for us.’’
At October’s end, Abric was named the goalie of the month for Atlantic Hockey and the Hockey Commissioners Association. He also won a recent AHA goalie-of-the-week nod. His 1.88 goals-against ranks No. 11 in the nation and his .944 save percentage ranks. No. 4 (Northeastern sophomore Devon Levi ranks first at .949).
“He’s been our best player,’’ said Riley, who likens Abric to Parker Gahagen (Class of 2017), who is playing his fourth season of minor pro hockey. Abric moves the puck well, is strong on the breakout plays and basically has no visible weaknesses.
Senior Colin Bilek, a second-team All-American with 18 goals last season, had only one goal through the first eight games. “He was snake-bit. He was ringing pucks off posts and it was just so close,’’ Riley said. Bilek broke out on Nov. 12 with a hat trick against Yale and added a tally last Saturday at Niagara.
“That's a good sign for us when he's starting to heat up and I think he's definitely doing that,’’ Riley said.
Army is also getting goal production from Anthony Firriolo (5), John Keranen (3), Mitch Machlitt (3) and Ricky Lyle (3).
“Some of the bounces started going our way,’’ Riley said. “Our special teams have been – knock on wood – really good and if you can win the special teams battle then you’re probably going to have success. The other thing is winning third periods.’’
Army has outscored its foes in the final period in four of the last five games (and one draw) by an 8-1 margin.
Army closes out the semester with a Dec. 2 home game against Sacred Heart and a Dec. 11-12 set at league-leading RIT.
This article originally appeared on Times Herald-Record: Army West Point NCAA college Atlantic Hockey