When a team only has six games remaining in its schedule, the hope is that its playoff position is close to set.
That, however, is a false hope in the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA).
Six points separate the top nine teams in the conference. That means that one weekend sweep, win or lose, can move a team from the top to the middle of the pack. Thankfully, those are rare in AHA play.
The Mercyhurst men’s hockey team is knee-deep in the toughest part of its schedule, and the end isn’t yet in view.
“We are in a tight and competitive league from top to bottom,” coach Rick Gotkin said.
So far, Gotkin and the Lakers have fared well in conference play. They sit in second place in the conference with a 12-5-4 record.
The Lakers have battled through every inch of their schedule. Most recently, they traveled to then No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), finishing with a loss and a tie. The bright side of the series is that the team came away with a point towards the standings with the day-two tie.
There was a brief break for the team following the RIT series. After playing its previous six games on the road, its break was short-lived with streaking Niagara coming to town.
Niagara came to Erie on a six-game winning streak, one that wouldn’t be broken in Erie. The Lakers fought hard in a 6-1 defeat. But in a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, the Lakers traveled to Niagara on Saturday and won by a score of 3-2. The win ended the Purple Eagles’ seven-game winning streak and was Mercyhurst’s first win in five games.
“We didn’t play well on Friday night, and the score showed that,” Gotkin said. “But we played much better Saturday, and the score showed that as well.”
The inconsistencies in play cannot be simplified to one specific issue.
“There wasn’t one specific reason why we played poorly Friday and better Saturday,” Gotkin said. “It was a lot of little things, and that’s part of the learning curve.”
The Niagara series marks the second time in two weeks that Gotkin has turned to sophomore goaltender Jordan Tibbett for the second game. Tibbett has a 2-0-1 record on the year, while posting a .94 save percentage.
“Goaltending in our league is unbelievable, and we have two very good goalies,” Gotkin said. “That’s a luxury we have.”
Gotkin has seen first hand how good the goaltending is in the AHA. Just in the last two series, the Lakers have faced the third and first ranked goaltenders in the country in RIT’s Shane Madalora and Niagara’s Chris Noonan respectively
Despite the switch, senior goaltender Max Strang is still part of the equation. Despite two rough outings, Strang has earned his place between the pipes. He has posted a .933 save percentage in conference with 612 saves, which is the most in the conference.
“Max has played very well for us. He’s made a lot of saves,” Gotkin said. “Max is also mentally tough.”
Even with the up and down play of late, Gotkin and the Lakers are in an excellent position heading into the final three series of the year.
“We are going to be battle tested by the end of the season, especially once the playoffs start,” Gotkin said.
The Lakers realize they need to play well as a team to win games.
“When we don’t play well as a team, we lose, but when we do we can beat anyone,” Gotkin said. “We are doing it by committee.”
So far, that committee has played well.
Individually, there are four players with 20 points on the season including three freshmen.
There are seven more Lakers in double figures in scoring.
“There are still things we need to get better at,” Gotkin said. “We are trying to figure out how we need to play to be successful.”
What has also helped is senior leadership from the team’s four seniors. Strang in goal, Kevin Noble and Pat Goebel on defense and Derek Elliott on offense have been pivotal this season.
“Without those four, I’m not sure we are in the hunt right now,” Gotkin said. “Kevin and Pat have been staples for our defense all season.”
With the strong senior leadership and a healthy dose of freshmen scoring, the Lakers are in a power position as the season winds down.
The Lakers have another home-and-home series against Robert Morris on Friday Feb. 10, at 7:05 p.m. in the Mercyhurst Ice Center before traveling Saturday to Robert Morris. They will try to avenge early season losses to the Colonials.