AIC hockey looking to pull another NCAA tourney upset against Michigan

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/23/2022 7:38:27 PM
Modified: 3/23/2022 7:37:35 PM

SPRINGFIELD – UMass won’t be the only Western Massachusetts institute in the Big Dance this week.

American International College has a tall task at hand in the first round of the Division I NCAA ice hockey tournament. 

The No. 4 Yellow Jackets will need to take down No. 1 Michigan in order to advance to the next round of the postseason. The two teams will battle on Friday at 3 p.m. in Allentown, Pa. on ESPNU.

Though it certainly won’t be easy, AIC has some experience when it comes to knocking out No. 1 seeds in this tournament; just three years ago, the Yellow Jackets pulled off the ultimate upset when they ousted No. 1 St. Cloud State in their NCAA debut. Now, they’ll look to replicate that feat against Michigan, leaning on their experience and maturity in the process. 

“It's also very helpful to have some guys that were in that locker room, that are still on this hockey team, that were able to pull off in some regards one of the biggest upsets in college hockey history,” AIC head coach Eric Lang said. “This Michigan team has seven first-round NHL draft picks, 12 NHL draft picks in total, so it will be a tall task. But we’re a very mature team. We're a little older team, and we have the most returning players from the NCAA tournament a year ago. So we're hoping to be able to draw on some of those past experiences.”

In addition to the seven players from that 2019 team, it helps that the Yellow Jackets are riding a significant wave of momentum heading into Friday’s matchup. Five members of the team earned all-conference honors: Lang was named Atlantic Hockey Association Coach of the Year, Jake Stella was named Best Defensive Forward, Zak Galambos earned Best Defenseman, Jake Kucharski picked up Goaltender of the Year, and Chris Theodore won the conference’s highest honor as the AHA’s Player of the Year. 

In addition to the accolades, AIC has won 19 of its last 24 games and recently earned a third consecutive Atlantic Hockey Association championship. During that conference tournament, the Jackets outscored their opponents 23-8, including an impressive 7-0 shutout victory in the title game against Air Force. Four Yellow Jackets made the all-tournament team – forwards Blake Bennett and Chris Dodero, defender Zak Galambos and netminder Alec Calvaruso.

Calvaruso has been key for the Yellow Jackets, filling in for Kucharski between the pipes as he takes a medical leave of absence from AIC. Calvaruso has played well down the stretch, and Lang thinks he has just the disposition the team needs against Michigan. 

“He's a great teammate, the ultimate competitor, and he has just the type of personality it takes to maybe pull off this big upset here on Friday,” Lang said on Calvaruso. “He has a lot of belief in himself. He's not going to be in awe of the University of Michigan. He's kind of got this disposition about him and a strong belief to him. It gives our group a lot of confidence.” 

Confidence is what they’ll need against a Michigan team that’s 29-9-1 on the season. The Wolverines won their Big 10 conference championship and are riding a four-game win streak heading into the contest. They are one of, if not the, clear favorites to win it all. 

“They are a terrific skating team. They probably have the highest skill level of any team maybe ever assembled. So we're gonna have to slow them down,” Lang said. “We're gonna have to really defend exceptionally hard and control some momentum swings. We're going to have to weather some storms. We'll need some timely goaltending and we'll have to have some opportunistic goal scoring on our part as well.” 

The Yellow Jackets have shown before that they can pull off the improbable, and they’ve come a long way in a short time during Lang’s tenure. AIC is playing in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, and is a name that college hockey fans should get used to hearing more about in the future. 

“It takes a village and we've had great support from our institution, we've had great support from the city of Springfield. I think we're one of the neatest stories not only in college hockey, but in all of college sports,” Lang said. “We've won four straight regular season championships, I think there's only been three other schools in the history of college hockey to do so, and some of those are your real blue blood hockey programs in Harvard and Minnesota. Little old AIC, we're pretty neat story down here in Springfield.” 

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