Can men's hockey break through to win the AHA?

It’s déjà vu all over again for the Mercyhurst College men’s hockey team. Last year the players began the season after losing the Atlantic Hockey Association final to Air Force Academy, only to find themselves doing the same thing this year.

Is it “Always a bridesmaid and never a bride” for this group of skaters, or can the Lakers find a way to win the conference title this year?

The Lakers experienced moderate turnover from last year, losing five seniors. They were impact players, evidenced by the fact that Matt Lundin, Kirk Medernach, Matt Pierce, Brett Robinson and Bobby Phillips have all signed with teams in the East Coast Hockey League.

To replace them, Head Coach Rick Gotkin recruited four freshmen, two forwards and two defensemen – Grant Blakey (F), Charlie Carkin (D), Paul Chiasson (F) and Alex Gallen (D).

Blakey performed very well on Sunday’s game against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and he’s my rookie to watch this season.

The Lakers kept their leading scorers from last year, juniors Steve Cameron and Scott Pitt, so offense shouldn’t be an immediate problem for Mercyhurst, barring some lines not meshing well early in the season.

On the blue line, the remaining defensemen need to account for the minutes eaten up by Medernach and Phillips last year. However, a veteran group including seniors Cullen Eddy, Matt Fennell, and Derek Fisher should provide enough security for the younger players to develop.

Junior goalie Ryan Zapolski will be between the pipes again for the Lakers, and he looks to build on a stellar GAA of 2.22 and save percentage of .934 last season.

Be on the lookout for sophomores Phil Ginand and Kevin Noble this year. Ginand was the fifth-leading scorer on the squad last year, posting 34 points in 39 games, including 9 PPG. Expect more ice time for Ginand after the departures of Pierce and Robinson.

Noble’s efforts for the Hurst won’t show up that often on the stat sheet, but he played to a plus-15 last year, second only to Medernach. His solid defensive presence won’t go unnoticed, and he may break out as the Lakers’ next big player on the back line.

Captaining the Lakers this year is senior Chris Risi, and the assistants are seniors Cody Collins and Neil Graham. It’s good to see a ham and egger like Graham get recognized, because he’s a player who does all the little things necessary to win.

Will the building of the team in the last few years pay dividends now, or will the Lakers
again fall just short of their goal? I predict a good season followed up by a gritty, physical playoffs that puts the Lakers atop the AHA and back into the NCAA tournament.