STORRS, Conn. — All season Mercyhurst College coach Rick Gotkin has told his team that the next game in their season was the biggest of the year. Saturday, that was certainly true.
Thanks to a 6-5 come-from-behind win, Mercyhurst, the MAAC regular-season champion, knocked off number-two seed Quinnipiac to capture the MAAC championship. With the victory, the Lakers, in just their third season in Division I, become the first MAAC team to advance to the NCAA championships by virtue of the MAAC automatic qualifier, awarded this year for the first time.
Trailing 5-4 with nine minutes to play, Eric Ellis scored on a breakaway to even the score. The goal came after Quinnipiac had held the momentum for much of the third period, itself battling from a 4-3 deficit entering the frame.
“Goals are momentum, and when a team scores, you get a bit of a high and when you’re scored against you hit a bit of a low,” said Gotkin, who becomes the first coach to ever take his team to the NCAA championship at the Division I, II and III levels. “We just told our guys not to get too high or low.”
“We talked about it a little bit in the second intermission and we accepted the fact that good things were going to happen and bad things were going to happen and that we needed to keep on an even keel,” said Mercyhurst senior Jeff Gould, who scored three goals in the tournament, earning the MVP award. “When [Quinnipiac] took the lead, we pulled together and said we’re going to do this.”
Ellis’s tally certainly changed the momentum, and 2:12 later, rookie Mike Carter scored the game-winning goal, lifting the Lakers to the NCAA bid.
The play developed after Ellis’ bid on the rush was blocked to the corner. Ellis continued to pursue the play, won the loose puck in the corner and fired a pass to Carter, who redirected it at the far post for the victory.
“Obviously, that’s the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life,” said Carter, who was named to the MAAC All-Tournament team. “[When Ellis went into the corner] I was hoping he was going to get me the puck in front. Ellis made a great pass and I was wide open in front of the net. I just had to stuff it in the five hole.”
The game was a matchup of the two of the league’s best offenses, and the top two MAAC defenses. Mercyhurst finished the regular season with the top defense and second-best offense (behind Iona) and Quinnipiac finished right behind the Lakers in both categories.
So the question was, which aspect of the game would give first — offense or defense. The first period settled that argument quickly, with the clubs combining for four goals in the first 12 minutes.
Quinnipiac opened the scoring by putting pressure on what looked like a tentative and nervous Mercyhurst defense. Dennis Palaia forced Mercyhurst’s Nolan Brown to turn over the puck in the corner to the right of Aubry and fed the puck to Brian Herbert. Walking out of the corner, Herbert fired a shot over the blocker of Aubry for a 1-0 lead.
The Lakers answered quickly, as a neutral zone turnover by Quinnipiac created a 3-on-1 break the other way. Eric Ellis, who finished the game with a goal and two assists, moved the puck to Louis Goulet in the high slot for a shot over Eddy’s blocker, evening the score at 3:04.
With the Laker defense still on its heels, Quinnipiac forced Mercyhurst into back-to-back penalties early on, giving the Braves a brief 5-on-3 man advantage. But the Mercyhurst penalty killers, ranked atop to MAAC, shut down the league’s best power play.
That kill gave Mercyhurst an immediate jump, and 22 seconds after returning to full strength, sophomore Adam Rivers gave the Lakers their first lead. Capitalizing on another turnover by the Braves, Rivers broke alone on Eddy and beat him stick side.
Gould extended the Laker lead on the power play at 11:28. Jody Robinson’s shot from the point looked to hit Eddy in the stomach. Unable to handle the rebound, Ellis had to simply push the puck in for the 3-1 lead at 11:28.
In the second period, the Lakers tried to slip back into a neutral zone trap defense, a game they have played well at times during the season. But Quinnipiac’s high-powered offense still broke through, scoring twice in eight seconds to even the game.
Palaia picked up the first tally, taking a Herbert pass from the right corner and lifting it over Aubry at 6:54. And eight seconds later, a controversial rebound goal by Jed Holtzman knotted the game at three.
Holtzman crashed the net after Ben Blais’s shot was bobbled by Aubry in the crease. Somehow the puck squeaked past Aubry as the net came off its moorings. But instant replay, used for the first time ever in a MAAC championship, showed the puck crossed the line before the net was displaced.
The Lakers, though, answered. Mercyhurst took back control of the pace through the middle of the period, but generated few quality chances. That was until rookie Peter Rynshoven sprang himself free to receive a pass from Ellis. He then roofed a shot over Eddy that hit the crossbar and landed over the goal line, giving the Lakers a 4-3 lead at 15:10.
For the third consecutive period, Quinnipiac came out flying, and early pressure allowed the Braves to tie the game. After Aubry stopped Cerralla to look like the hero just 20 seconds into the frame, a soft shot by Todd Bennett a minute later hit off Aubry’s shoulder and eluded the netmider, floating into the net.
The Lakers, able to recover from Quinnipiac’s fast starts in the first two period, did not do so immediately in the third. The Braves, taking a chance by rolling four lines for the entire game, seemed fresher than Mercyhurst.
And though playing all four lines might seem like a risk, that risk paid off with 11:27 to play. Fourth-line winger Terry Harris, a hero of Thursday’s semifinal with three points, was freed by a Ryan Morton pass and beat Aubry to give the Braves the lead, 5-4.
But the never-say-die Lakers waited patiently for their breaks, and Ellis’s breakaway with 9:00 remaining put Mercyhurst back in control and snatched the title from the Braves.
Said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold of his team’s loss: “I’m disappointed in the way my team played tonight. For the whole season, our focal point was to play defense. You don’t give up six goals in a championship game and win.”
The Lakers will make their first trip to the NCAA tournament at the Division I level. In 1993 and 1995, they qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament and, in 1991, the NCAA Division III tournament.