Heading into this season, the Mercyhurst men’s hockey team had a number of question marks on the roster. With 12 freshmen and a number of others stepping into new roles, there was an expected transition period.
Thanks to the recruiting and coaching of Head Coach Rick Gotkin, the learning curve has gone faster than anticipated, four games to be exact.
After opening the season 0-4, the Lakers churned out four straight victories. The first victory came against Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA) preseason No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
The key to that victory was senior goaltender Max Strang, who stopped 49 of 50 shots en route to a 2-1 win.
Since the RIT game, Strang has been stellar. The Lakers have gone 7-3-2 over that time span.
Strang has put together a solid season thus far, despite being a back-up the previous three years to standout Ryan Zapolski. Making the most of his opportunities, Strang welcomes the challenge.
“It’s been a lot of fun, and I have guys in front of me who work really hard, which makes my job a lot easier,” Strang said.
Gotkin has been pleased with the play of his senior goaltender this season.
“Every great team has a great goaltender, and Max has been great,” Gotkin said. “Max is the center of our universe.”
Despite an unassuming 7-7-2 overall record, Strang’s importance goes much deeper.
When looking at only AHA opponents, Strang’s brilliance shines through. He has posted a .957 save percentage and allowed only 1.63 goals per contest. His play has put the Lakers within two points of the AHA lead.
“Our schedule has been demanding, but playing those tough nonconference games helps when we play in conference,” Gotkin said. “We have had a good start, but we still have a long way to go.”
Gotkin attributes Strang’s overall numbers as a victim of the tough out-of-conference schedule.
“It’s a different environment, all of those games are on the road in front of very big crowds,” Gotkin said. “We played in front of 13,000 people at Wisconsin and went to Cornell for a game.”
Statistics aside, Strang has evolved into a leader for a young team.
“He has been a good leader the last three years, maybe not vocally, but he certainly has grown into a key part of our team,” Gotkin said.
Strang attributes his success to both Zapolski, but also new assistant coach and former Laker goaltender Peter Aubry.
“Peter Aubry has been instrumental in helping me out and getting me to where I am,” Strang said. “Zapolski taught me to always be ready to play. I watched him the last three years, and he was always ready to go.”
The Lakers have looked solid since the first four games. They beat then No. 19 ranked Cornell, RIT and current conference leader Air Force.
“I just want to keep giving us a chance to win every night and to work hard,” Strang said.
Strang and the Lakers hope to continue their strong conference play as they take on Canisius in Buffalo Friday night, then travel back to Erie to face Niagara at 7 p.m. at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.