Photo Credit: Kelly Shea-AIC Athletics
The Yellow Jackets of American International College (AIC) are playing at one of the best clips in the country. They are 26-4 in their last 30 games , and have just one conference loss in twelve conference games played this year. Head Coach Eric Lang is leading a team that has three goaltenders with wins, and rotates five lines of forwards, eight or more defenders, and has had four goalies see the ice.
Coming into the season, Lang, the ever humble person that he is, expected his team to be good, but is impressed by the consistency of this group. They are doing all of this after graduating 610 points of offense, and the goalie who set a lot of program marks at the Division One Level. As Lang said of his team, “we’re grooving pretty good right now.”
One reason that AIC has found their groove is the emergence of its depth in all parts of the lineup. Up front, the only constant player on Lang’s fourth line is Aaron Grounds, who has provided secondary scoring to compliment the physical game he plays. He is not alone for rookies having success on this team. There are plenty that have, like Hurricanes’ draft pick, Jake Kucharski who has filled in admirably for Stefano Durante when needed. Ryan McInchak also had a hand in the sweep over Holy Cross this weekend, playing the final 40 minutes of the opener, and all of the finale. What he was able to do is quite impressive as AIC noted.
As AIC noted ” The rookie goalkeeper, who came on in relief of redshirt freshman Jake Kucharski in the previous night’s win, has stopped all 37 shots he has faced so far in his collegiate career. He is the first goalkeeper to earn a shutout in his first start in the Division I era of program history.”
This depth is in addition to the scorers on this team. AIC soundly defeated Holy Cross without senior forward Tobias Fladeby. He is a scoring forward on AIC’s first line with a sound shot and prolific skating skills. His linemate for most of the year, Elijah Barriga is a junior center that came to AIC from UNLV. A top six forward on a nationally ranked team came from one of the better club hockey programs in the country. Lang noted that Barriga went to UNLV in part to work on his academics for a year before he was able to even play at the Division One level. His staff was undeterred, as Lang said ” we were scouring everywhere”, and because of where Elijah was playing after his time in junior hockey ended, he did not have to sit a year and was eligible right away. Lang wondered where Barriga went to school initially, researching where he went to school. He credits UNLV’s staff for supporting Elijah in his move to the Division One level, and now Barriga is one of this team’s many leaders on the ice, and in the classroom.
Another scoring forward for this team that has come on strong is Julius Janhonen. Lang could not say enough good things about the Finnish forward who is only in his first year in North American hockey. The staff was lucky to even get Julius to campus, as he had some issues getting into the University of Massachusetts to play for the Minutemen, where he originally committed.
As Lang noted, Julius liked the strong European representation in AIC’s recent history, and made the choice to come to AIC. Lang is over the moon about the potential of Janhonen, saying “we got pretty lucky on him” coming to campus, and that ,” he could be an NHL prospect at the end of the day. Janhonen has eight points in 13 games played, and uses his speed to find the open areas of the ice to make plays. Like so many players on this team, he can play anywhere as a forward, in every role Lang needs him to, and has the potential to succeed at each one. There is so much depth to this team, the staff can rotate players in and out to preserve effectiveness, and not have to rush players like Durante or Fladeby back to game action before they are both ready to come back to the lineup.
When making the case for his team Lang harkened back to the series loss at the hands of Quinnipiac in December. While the Bobcats handily won the Friday affair, AIC had more chances at even strength, but could not stay out of the penalty box against one of the most organized power plays in the game. They followed that up with a battle at home on a Saturday and lost 3-2 despite getting a fair amount of good looks. In a year with limited non conference opportunities, Lang took the time to note the history of this program in the NCAA Tournament, their 26-4 record in the last 30 games, and more.
At the end of the day, depth is this team’s biggest advantage over its opponents. As Lang said “This is the deepest team I’ve ever had.” That depth, and competitive drive his players have extends off the ice as well. As Lang took the time to mention, his program is one of the very few, and potentially the only program to have either a valedictorian or salutatorian for the past five years.
When you look to who may be in the postseason in March, AIC, on the strength of their conference record, and consistency throughout the year, combined with past history, is a strong candidate for an at-large bid, according to Lang.
More importantly, his team of good humans is leafing the way on the ice, in the classroom, and in the community of Springfield and beyond. Lang’s team reflects the person who coaches them. They are all competitive, humble, and ready to do more on the ice, in the classroom, and in the community.
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