Women's hockey dominates the CHA ice

Jill Barrile photo: Seniors Jess Jones, left, Pam Zgoda, center, and Kelley Steadman, right, are the backbone of a very young Lakers team.Jill Barrile photo: Seniors Jess Jones, left, Pam Zgoda, center, and Kelley Steadman, right, are the backbone of a very young Lakers team.The Mercyhurst women’s hockey team has not lost in 25 straight College Hockey America (CHA) games.

To an outsider, two conclusions are typically drawn. Either the conference is weak, or the top team is simply on a different level than its opposition.

In Mercyhurst’s case, it is the former. The fact that the Lakers have won the last nine CHA titles makes that point. However, not everyone agrees that the CHA is weak.

“We don’t agree with what everyone is saying,” Coach Michael Sisti said. “We have had some seasons where our only losses were in the CHA.”

During the 2009-10 season, the Lakers had a 30-3-3 record, with a loss and a tie coming against conference foe Niagara. Mercyhurst losses over the past three seasons have been to either highly ranked opponents or conference teams.

“People don’t realize it’s not easy to do,” said Sisti. “A lot of teams haven’t made seven straight NCAA appearances either.”

Recently the Lakers have been on a tear in conference, one Sisti attributes to his players, not the strength of the conference.

“It is something that we are very proud of as a program, but it isn’t easy,” said Sisti. “It says a lot about our players and coaches.”

Sisti has been able to sustain two long runs in conference that are unheard of: the current 25 game unbeaten streak and a 36-0-4 stretch from 2004-08. If the Lakers continue this trend, an eighth NCAA appearance should be on the horizon, but Sisti will not go there just yet.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves at all,” Sisti said. “We especially can’t after this past weekend in Syracuse.”

Sisti is referring to an 8-4 win and a 1-1 tie in the first conference games of the season against Syracuse.

The Lakers played without two key players on their top line, assistant captain and the nation’s leading-scorer Bailey Bram and her younger sister Shelby Bram.

“We are a very young team, so anytime you lose anyone because of injury or illness or anything like that, it’s big,” Sisti said. “We just try to use the next man up mentality and it has worked well for us.”

This season started with a next man up philosophy, after losing key players from last year’s team to graduation.

“The players take a lot of pride in themselves when they are asked to step in and play more than they usually might,” Sisti said. “We got better as a team this past weekend.”

Even though the team has not lost in 25 straight games against CHA teams, they are not looking past them either.

“I can’t imagine that they will look past anybody,” Sisti said. “We got all we could handle this past weekend, and it was just the beginning.”

Niagara is the closest team in terms of distance, and they are also the last CHA team to beat the Lakers. Robert Morris is in the process of a turnaround under new coach, former Laker assistant coach, Paul Colontonio. With the additions of Penn State and Lindenwood, and possibly RIT the following year, Mercyhurst will have a number of teams to match up against in conference.

“I think that because we are a small conference, we don’t get the same recognition,” Sisti said. “All these teams have different reasons to beat us, and they all get up to try and knock us off.”

Sisti and the Lakers will continue their CHA schedule when they play a home-and-home series. The Lakers will play on Jan. 13 at the Mercyhurst Ice Center at 7:05 p.m. and then travel to Niagara on Saturday at 2 p.m.