STORRS, Conn. — The final MAAC regular-season standings stated that Mercyhurst is the best squad in the league. Now, thanks to Thursday night’s 4-3 win over Canisius in the semifinals of the conference tournament, the Lakers earned the right to prove that statement in the MAAC final.
Mercyhurst will play the winner of the Quinnipiac/Iona game for the right to advance to the NCAA tournament on Saturday at noon at the UConn Ice Arena.
On Thursday night, the Lakers played a near-perfect game for the first two-plus periods before stumbling in the final five minutes of the game. In the first 55 minutes, they scored a power play goal, killed off a two-man disadvantage with the issue still in question early in the final period, and received great goaltending from Peter Aubry.
Yet Canisius refused to go away late in the contest. Jeff Street batted home an airborne puck with just under five minutes to play, while Rob Martin did the same with 27 seconds left to trim the Mercyhurst lead to only one goal. However, the Lakers were able to ward off the final Ice Griffs rush and squeeze out a one-goal victory.
“There was no quit in those kids, not that we ever expected there would be,” Lakers coach Rick Gotkin said. “They were great competition for us. I’m proud of our guys for the effort that we had, and now it’s on to tomorrow night.”
With the game tied at 1-1 entering the middle frame, Mercyhurst took advantage of the game with a three-goal outburst. A Canisius defensive breakdown resulted in a 2-on-1 rush for Lakers forwards Brad Olsen and Mike Carter. Olsen drew the lone Ice Griffs defender and slid a pass to Carter, who deked out Stephen Fabilli to give his team the lead at 2:20.
“After killing off that penalty [Canisius opened the period with a two-minute power play], it was back to work for us,” Mercyhurst sophomore winger Adam Rivers said. “Then we got that second goal, and it was a big momentum shift.”
The Lakers doubled their advantage just under three minutes later on Jeff Gould’s second goal of the evening. MAAC Offensive Rookie of the Year Adam Tackaberry partially fanned on his bid, allowing Fabilli to kick out the first chance. However, Gould alertly followed up on the play and was rewarded when he buried the rebound into an empty cage for a 3-1 lead.
As the second period progressed, fatigue seemed to set in. The Ice Griffs were whistled for four penalties, but the MAAC regular-season champs failed to convert on each occasion.
Finally, with the stanza winding down, Mercyhurst appeared to have put the game away for good when Olsen and Carter connected once again. This time, it was a falling Carter who delivered a pass to his teammate — from the seat of his pants — and watched as Olsen snapped a low bid home to pad the Lakers advantage to three goals.
“We’ve struggled in the second period all year long,” Canisius hockey coach Brian Cavanaugh said. “In the game that we played against them at the HSBC Arena in November, we had a real bad second period. You have to give high marks to Mercyhurst for a very gritty effort in the second period.”
Each team netted a power-play goal in the first period. With Jason Spence in the penalty box for holding, the Lakers capitalized on a marker from Gould. Mercyhurst worked the puck around the perimeter before Jody Robinson floated a wrister from the left point. Fabilli was screened in front and Gould redirected Robinson’s shot into the net for the first goal of the game.
The Ice Griffs countered Gould’s first goal with a power-play tally of their own in the final minute of the first period. David Deeves started the play with some crafty stickhandling in the right wing corner before sliding a pass to Rob Martin in the slot. The Canisius freshman winger finished the play with his seventh goal of the season to tie the game.
But that would be all that the Ice Griffs would be able to get against MAAC Goaltender of the Year Aubry until it netted two late goals. However, those scores would not be enough to prolong the contest and their season.
“Our kids never gave up,” Cavanaugh said. “I give us high marks for our determination in the end.”
“I think that they are going to be a great representative in the championship game,” he added. “They got great goaltending today, he was pretty solid.”
Aubry made 29 saves for Mercyhurst in the winning cause. Fabilli saved 24 shots for Canisius, who finished its season with a 17-12-4 record.
“We have a saying that the biggest game of the year is the next game,” said Gotkin, the MAAC Coach of the Year. “The thing that’s neat for us, especially for the guys who have been here for a few years, is that the opportunity to be in the MAAC gives us something to play for every night. That’s something that we didn’t have in years’ past. We have a great deal of respect for this conference.”