Tough First-Half Schedule for Lakers Could Fuel Strong Finish
by Joshua Seguin/CHN Writer
Few teams will ever have as brutal of a travel schedule, save Alabama-Huntsville, as Mercyhurst has endured over the first three months of the season. On the season, the Lakers have played just three out of their 17 games at home. They didn’t even have their home opener until December 8.
Theoretically, this schedule will make them stronger — something that will be important going into the meat of the Atlantic Hockey season. That's particularly important because Atlantic Hockey appears to be stronger than it's ever been, with two teams in the Top 20 of the Pairwise right now.
Winning on the road is not easy in college hockey. Most teams struggle to get above .500 over the course of a season in another school’s barn. So far, Mercyhurst has gone 7-6-1 in opposing arenas and a mere 2-1-0 on home ice.
“We are still fairly young,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “We have played all but three games at home. Of the 17 games we have left, 11 are at home. On paper this looks good but we still have to go out and win those games.”
Last weekend, the Lakers gave Maine everything they could handle, and then some, losing Friday in a game played in Portland, Maine, then winning at Alfond Arena, 5-2. Of course, Maine hasn't actually won a game at Alfond this season, though it's historically one of the toughest places to play.
“Both games were interesting,” said Gotkin. “I thought we played better on Friday, as Maine really took it to us in the first period on Saturday. We were under siege for most of the period but scored a goal with just ten seconds left in the period and that changed everything. Goals are momentum in hockey, especially ones late or early in the period.”
Winning and playing teams from the power conferences, such as Hockey East, make Atlantic Hockey better as a whole. Last weekend Bentley also defeated Northeastern, giving the conference two wins against arguably the strongest conference in college hockey.
Like every team, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Mercyhurst’s strength this season has been on offense, especially the power play. The latter is ranked sixth in the nation, and it’s easy to see why; the movement rivals some of the best power plays in the country. The Lakers have scored a power-play goal in 10 of their last 11 games and have a 23.9 percent success rate.
The weakness is on defense. As good as the power play has been, the penalty killing has been that unsuccessful, with only 80 percent success. They also give up more than three goals a game. But against Maine, Mercyhurst allowed just four goals and received great goaltending.
“We have been good in a lot of areas this year but not great,” said Gotkin. “A lot of different guys have had good nights for us. The power play has been great for us but we are looking for improvement on the penalty kill. We haven’t taken a lot of penalties but we need to kill the ones we do take.”
Over the weekend, the goaltenders were the strongest players on the ice for Mercyhurst, stopping 78 of 82 shots. Friday, Jordan Tibbett stopped 35 shots, and Saturday, Max Strang one-upped his goalie teammate by stopping 43.
“We got great goaltending by both of our goaltenders this weekend,” said Gotkin. “The key for us on Saturday was Max Strang. Jordan played well for us on Friday but Max played better on Saturday. Max gave us the chance to win on Saturday, like Jordan did the night before. Goaltending was a strength this weekend.”
Mercyhurst is in good position, sitting in a tie for third in Atlantic Hockey with Holy Cross, and with all those home games ahead. The Lakers actually own at least a game in hand on all of the teams of above them and Holy Cross. This weekend, the Lakers will host Holy Cross for two home games. It will be the first of many home tests in the second half.
“Every night is a new challenge for us,” said Gotkin. "Holy Cross will pose so many different challenges to a Maine, as every team is different in college hockey. It is hard to win but easy to lose, it's college hockey. It is difficult to win every night, every team is that close.”
The prize for finishing in the top four of Atlantic Hockey is a bye in the first round of the tournament and to host a home quarterfinal series. With the Lakers sitting in third, staying in this position will be the ultimate goal. If they can get to Rochester, anything can happen from there. From there the ultimate prize in the Atlantic is attainable, the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
“Our immediate goal is to get a top four spot,” said Gotkin. “I like our team on the road but the bye and hosting a quarterfinal is important. Getting a point or two every night is our goal going forward.”