There is an old hockey saying that says your penalty kill can win you games and your power play loses games.
After a 3-1 series victory over Holy Cross in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) playoffs, the Mercyhurst men’s hockey team is proof that the saying is correct.
The Lakers went 1-14 on the power play over the course of the weekend and gave up a short-handed goal in their one loss on Saturday night. The power play wasn’t working, but the penalty kill was.
Senior goaltender Max Strang and the Lakers’ defense killed 15 of the 17 power plays. But one was more critical than the rest.
During the decisive game three, the Lakers were winning by a score of 2-1 in the second period. But in a potentially fatal play, senior captain Kevin Noble checked a Holy Cross player from behind, receiving a 5-minute penalty and a game misconduct. Strang and the defense rallied and fought off the penalty.
“That was certainly a big blow losing one of our senior captains, and then we went from six defensemen to five,” Coach Gotkin said. “But we killed the 5-minute major and a five on three and that was the game.”
The series of events in the second period were demoralizing, but not for the Lakers.
“We took all the momentum,” Gotkin said.
Later in the second period, freshman Matt Zay scored the first of his two goals and put the Lakers up for good.
Two goals were all Strang needed to get the win Sunday night. He stopped 41 of 42 shots in the win. Strang was easily the MVP of the series as he stopped 113 of 117 shots for a .966 save percentage.
“By far Max was the MVP, Max’s game Sunday might have been his best game all year,” said Gotkin. “And that’s saying a lot because he has had a lot of great games.”
Strang has been excellent all season, but he has gone to another level in recent weeks. In his last seven appearances he has stopped 224 of 231 shots for a save percentage of .970. Also, Strang has now given up two goals or less in 18 games this season.
“Max gave us a gigantic chance to win all three games,” said Gotkin. “You need outstanding goaltending to win in this league, and we believe we have that.”
The Lakers have played top goaltending all year; three of the best in the country reside in the AHA. But the Lakers are not afraid to play in low-scoring games.
“We would love to have more production on offense, but low scoring has become our M.O.,” said Gotkin. “We try to play great defense and be opportunistic on offense.”
Great defense is an understatement of late. The Lakers’ defense is what keeps them in games, with Strang making save after save.
“The way we play team defense we give up a lot of shots, and that’s by design,” said Gotkin. “We make them shoot from the perimeter where they aren’t really getting great shots.”
So far, the strategy is paying dividends.
On the offensive end, the Lakers continue to get outstanding production from freshmen. Five of the six goals scored on the weekend were by freshmen.
Freshman Daniel Bahntge scored both goals on Friday night, the second in acrobatic fashion. Defenseman Tyler Shiplo scored the lone goal on Saturday. And Zay was the hero Sunday with the game-winning goal and one more for good measure.
The Lakers will need all the scoring they can get as they head into the final weekend of the AHA playoffs. This is the first time the team has been there since 2009. But it’s a one-and-done playoff the rest of the way.
The team will face Air Force, which has dominated the AHA playoffs since joining the league in 2005.
“Air Force has owned this league,” Gotkin said. “But it’s a good feeling knowing we are 2-1 against them.”
Overall, the Lakers are excited to be this far into the postseason with a very real chance of winning the title.
“It’s a great time of year with playoff hockey and our league is very tough,” said Gotkin. “We know that to continue to play we have to beat good teams, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Gotkin and the Lakers head to Rochester for the semifinal matchup against Air Force on Friday at 4:05 p.m.