It’s the power conference in the country. Last year, the WCHA put four teams in the Frozen Four, an unprecedented accomplishment.
As season three of Atlantic Hockey began last weekend, no AHA team had ever beaten a WHCA foe. And that dated back to the old days of the MAAC league.
The Lakers, who always put together one of the tougher non-league schedules in Atlantic Hockey, began the year with a 16-hour bus ride to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to play WCHA member Michigan Tech.
No, Michigan Tech is not among the annual Frozen Four contenders from the WCHA, but yes, it’s still a WCHA team and a pretty decent one at that.
The Lakers kept the 0-for streak of Atlantic Hockey alive on Friday night, falling, 4-3, in what head coach Rick Gotkin described as a very well-played game for Mercyhurst.
One night later, though, the skies opened, angels’ voices sang and light shone down upon the small school from Erie, Penn. A 5-2 victory for Lakers over Michigan Tech ended the drought against college hockey’s power conference and gave everyone in Atlantic Hockey reason to celebrate.
“I’m not totally sure we didn’t play better on Friday, but Saturday was still a great win,” said Gotkin. “[Michigan Tech is] a WCHA team that swept Minnesota last year and beat national champion Denver.”
In earning the win, Gotkin also got a small surprise from his goaltender. With the opportunity to start rookie Tyler Small, the coaching staff decided to take a look at the young goaltender and liked what they saw.
“The goal was to try to see as many different people as we could in nonconference games,” said Gotkin. “Putting [returning number-one goaltender] Mike Ella in on Friday was a no-brainer and he played well.
“But we made a decision to go with Tyler Small on Saturday and he showed lots of poise and confidence. We like how calm he was and how confident he seemed. We were ecstatic. He did a great job. You don’t win games like that without excellent goaltending.”
On the night, Small stopped 41 shots, a night after Ella made 25 saves in the 4-3 loss.
In addition to the play of Small, Gotkin was excited to see both his returning scorers, as well as a couple of rookie players, all get involved in the scoring.
“Ben Cottreau, Scott Champagne and Dave Borrelli all played very well,” said Gotkin. “But we got some neat offense from a line we created with [rookie] Brent Robinson, Kerry Bowman and Jon Asselstine. They played great both games. I was very impressed with the way the freshman, Brent Robinson, played.”
In total, the Robinson-Bowman-Asselstine line accounted for two goals for six points, while the top line of Cottreau-Champagne-Borrelli toped that with four goals and nine points.
Adding to the superlatives was defenseman Jamie Hunt, who according to Gotkin was “the best player on the ice for both teams.
“He was everywhere — offensively, defensively. We used him in every situation — to kill penalties, to quarterback the power play. Everything.
“We hoped he could pick up where [graduated senior] T.J. Kemp left off and last weekend was what we hoped to see from Jamie.”
This weekend, the Lakers return home for somewhat of a backwards schedule, playing an exhibition against Brock University on Friday night. There, Gotkin hopes to get a look at his third goaltender, Jordan Wakefield, who missed all of last season with an injury but according to Gotkin is back to 100 percent.
Player of the Week
Mike Ruberto — Canisius: In a week when there were very few games, you might think that the winners of the weekly awards might not have earned the recognition. That’s not true for any of this week’s three award winners, particularly Ruberto, who potted two goals and added three assists for a five-point weekend and a plus-3 rating in a 6-4 victory over Robert Morris. At this pace, Ruberto could post a 150-point season. No pressure, though.
Goaltender of the Week
Tyler Small — Mercyhurst: On a weekend that featured some top-notch rookie goaltending, Mercyhurst’s Small led the way. He earned the first-ever victory for an Atlantic Hockey team against a WCHA club as the Lakers beat Michigan Tech, 5-2. Small made a large contribution, stopping 41 of the 43 shots he faced.
Rookie of the Week
Dan Griffin — Canisius How does a rookie goaltender make his mark on a team? How about picking up a 6-4 win in the season opener by posting 38 saves? That’s exactly what Giffin did in a 6-4 victory over Robert Morris. Griffin is filling some big shoes after the graduation of Bryan Worosz, and it looks at the start, at least, that he’s doing a pretty good job.
In what has been kept a quiet news story by the school, Mercyhurst released goaltender Andy Franck last week for what Rick Gotkin called “an internal matter.”
Franck was one of four goaltenders who began the season on the Mercyhurst roster, all four of whom Gotkin said prior to the season had a chance at playing.
“We’re disappointed that Andy’s no longer with our team. It was an internal matter that we can’t get into the ins and outs of it,” said Gotkin. “But we wish Andy nothing but the best.
“We coaches do this because we love being with the kids, so when something like this happens I feel like I failed. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with the team and we’ve headed in different directions.”
In an anonymous email that I received, the author said that Franck missed a morning goaltender’s practice that he wasn’t informed about and that this was the third time that Franck had missed or was late to a meeting or practice.
Gotkin wouldn’t comment on the email, simply stating that it was an internal matter that the school will not discuss.
Franck had some decent times with the Lakers, having posted a 20-6-0 record his freshman year, leading Mercyhurst to the NCAA tournament. Last year, though, as a junior, Franck struggled a bit midway through the season and was replaced by Mike Ella, who took the team on a 9-0-0 run to end the season that brought the Lakers from fifth place to its first Atlantic Hockey championship and third NCAA berth.
The move still leaves Mercyhurst will three top-notch goaltenders in Ella, Wakefield and Small.
…to Canisius coach Dave Smith, who, coaching his first-ever game behind the Canisius bench, entered Atlantic Hockey with a boom. His Griffs earned a 6-4 road win over Robert Morris.
“It felt good to get my first win but better to see the guys respond to what we put in,” said Smith. “We had our ups and our downs but it felt like we had the game under control.”
Smith was particularly happy with the play of Ruberto, who potted two goals and five points.
“Mike Ruberto has shown the ability to play,” said Smith. “He was good in junior hockey and he had a pretty good freshman year. His line with Michael Cohen and Joel Kitchen clicked real well and if we’re going to be successful, we need those guys to be playing every night.”
With the win, Smith is only 341 short of passing Brian Cavanaugh, the school’s all-time winningest coach.
Quest for the Cup
Not Lord Stanley, but rather the Commissioners’ Cup — a year-long series between each of the six leagues which identifies interleague games to count towards a final standing — is looking quite good this year for Atlantic Hockey.
Last weekend, Atlantic Hockey played two of the identified games versus Commissioners’ Cup opponents and won both — Mercyhurst 5-2 over Michigan Tech and Canisius 6-4 over Robert Morris.
For the record, last year Atlantic Hockey finished last in the Commissioners’ Cup standings.
Everyone’s In Action
With a continuation of a bunch of non-league play this weekend, every Atlantic Hockey team will finally hit someone besides teammates, even if just for exhibition. Two clubs, Holy Cross and AIC, are both still in preseason mode as AIC will face St. Nick’s while Holy Cross hosts Canada’s Royal Military College.
The rest of the league will play games that count, with the highlight possibly being Bentley. The Falcons will head to the Q-Cup tournament hosted by Quinnipiac and face what appears to be a strong Air Force team on Friday night, and then either the host Bobcats or RIT.
It will either be old or new for the Falcons: if they face Air Force and RIT, it will be a prelude of what’s to come as both teams will enter Atlantic Hockey next year. If it’s Air Force and Quinnipiac, of course, they’ll get to play Quinnipiac, which left Atlantic Hockey this season for the ECACHL.
USCHO covers Atlantic Hockey all week long on the Atlantic Hockey Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.