NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — Mercyhurst and Iona approached their regular season finale from opposite ends of the spectrum. The Lakers wanted a win after losing their first, and last, two MAAC games. The Gaels wanted to continue building momentum and add to their modest two game winning streak. Something had to give.
That something turned out to be Iona’s defense as Mercyhurst struck for five unanswered goals in a convincing 5-1 victory.
“We need that. We thought we played pretty good last night on the road at Army and unfortunately we just didn’t win the hockey game,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “We knew coming in here to this rink against a great team like Iona that we would have our hands full. I thought Iona played well and we found a way to win. We want to go into the playoffs on a positive situation.”
Gotkin’s positive situation started off on a negative foot as Iona opened the scoring at 14:15 of the first period. Chad Nordhagen walked out from behind the net and beat goaltender Matt Cifelli on a rebound.
That would be the last time the Gaels beat Cifelli as the sophomore finished with 33 saves.
“Matt Cifelli is a great goaltender. [His] only problem is [playing] in the shadow of Peter Aubry, who has been so dominant. Matt Cifelli can flat-out play. He did a great job for us in our tie against Quinnipiac earlier in the season and he got an out-of-conference win against Colgate,” Gotkin said.
Mercyhurst drew even at 4:24 of the second period when Rich Hansen deflected home a Mike Carter point shot from the middle of the ice.
Only 38 seconds later, the Gaels were given a golden opportunity to regain the lead, and possibly seize control of the game, with a 5-on-3 power play for two minutes. Both coaches agreed that Mercyhurst’s penalty kill was the turning point of the game.
“If we had a chance to win, we were going to have to convert on that chance. They did a good job on the coverage, but it seemed like the puck was bouncing around and a couple of times, when we shot, we shot wide — and you know that you weren’t going to get an opportunity like that again,” Iona coach Frank Bretti stated.
Gotkin agreed with Bretti’s assessment. “I thought that was the turning point, at least from out standpoint. We felt real good. We had [to kill] a 5-on-3 for two minutes and we were able to kill that off and come right back and kill another one off. We got some momentum and really built on that,” he said.
Mercyhurst used the shift in momentum as the impetus to raise the level of their transition game. The result was a pair of goals 51 seconds apart as Mike Muldoon and Brad McDonald gave the Lakers a 3-1 lead.
The Lakers extended their lead in the closing seconds when Adam Tackaberry went forward of a faceoff to the left of Scott Galenza and scored an unassisted goal with 21.46 seconds left in the period.
“We’re a pretty good sized team that likes to skate. I thought we actually moved the puck better last night. That’s a big part of the game. You need to get goaltending, finish your checks, play good defense, and you need to get timely goals and I think we did a little bit of all of that tonight, “Gotkin explained.
Mercyhurst finished off its run of goals late in the third period as David Wrigley iced the game off a two-man rush at 14:44 of the third period — just 32 seconds after having a Lakers’ goal waved off because it was kicked into the net.
With the regular season wrapped up, Gotkin turns his focus on defending their MAAC playoff title. “Our first [playoff] game with Army id the most important game of the year because it is our next game. We are just going to have to play our game which is to bang and skate and finish our opportunities,” he said.
“You want to go [into the playoffs on a little bit of a roll. We had a tough one last night,” Cifelli admitted. “I knew the guys wanted this one after coming off two losses in a row. Personally, I felt really strong and really confident in the guys [and] that they wanted win the game and make sure we did all the little things. It is just an overall great effort by all of the boys.”
During his team’s recent five game losing streak, Bretti managed to remain positive about Iona’s effort. That was not the case after the loss. “Right now the only thing we can do is block it out. Give Mercyhurst a lot of credit, they played with an edge and they were very sharp. I thought we lacked that sharpness even though we were ahead after the first period,” he said.
The loss was even harder to take when you consider the Gaels honored 11 seniors who played their final home game. “This is the first time I am experiencing this as a head coach. When I first walked on the ice and was getting ready for the presentations, I built up a lot of emotions within myself. These guys have done so much in building our program. I’m just happy that tonight wasn’t their last game,” Bretti said.
Bretti will spend the next few days preparing the Gaels for the playoffs. “Our focus is to be ready to go in practice, to be sharp in practice, and go out and play our game. We feel if we can put together a complete game with our three units — goaltending, defense and offense — then I think we are going to put ourselves in a good position,” he said.
Mercyhurst (22-9-3, 21-2-3 MAAC) begins its defense when they host Army in the first round of the playoffs. All Iona (13-16-2, 12-11-2 MAAC) knows is that their playoff game will be somewhere in Connecticut. If Connecticut defeats Bentley Sunday afternoon, then Iona is the seventh seed and will play Quinnipiac. If UConn loses, the Gaels are the sixth seed and will play Sacred Heart.