WEST POINT, N.Y. — Winning the MAAC tournament championship for any team is special. For Mercyhurst, a 4-3 winner over Quinnipiac Sunday, the win was extra special.
The Mercyhurst special teams became the story of the thrilling title game, as the Lakers held Quinnipiac scoreless in five power-play chances and sophomore defenseman T.J. Kemp scored on the power play with 11:15 remaining to break a 3-3 tie and lift the Lakers to the championship.
“The power play loses you hockey games and the penalty kill wins you hockey games,” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin, whose Lakers will advance to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. “You saw a great example of that in the third period where we got a key power play game and a couple of big penalty kills. That was the difference.”
Kemp’s game-winner came just 24 seconds after Quinnipiac’s Michael Bordieri was whistled for holding. As the puck cycled from the right side out to Kemp at the left point, he feathered a soft wrister onto Quinnipiac goaltender Jamie Holden (30 saves). With Rich Hansen heading to the net to deflect the puck, it appeared Holden might have been distracted as the puck went through the five-hole.
“I just wanted to get the puck to the net in hopes we could crash the net,” said Kemp. “When I shot it I think [Holden] anticipated that Rich Hansen might tip the puck.”
The goal gave back to the Lakers a third-period lead they had relinquished, and, with their ability to shut down the Quinnipiac offense for the remainder of the game, Mercyhurst moved on to the title.
The opening minutes favored Quinnipiac, which had an early edge. The Bobcats jumped out to a lead at first intermission, sandwiching goals by John Kelly and Chris White around a Hansen tally for Mercyhurst.
But that disappeared thanks to a lopsided second period in favor of the Lakers.
“For whatever reason, we’ve started slow in a number of games this year,” said Gotkin, whose Lakers were 3-0-1 against Quinnipiac this season, scoring two second-period goals in each of the four games. “We had hoped that we could go out and just be consistent, but for some reason we started slow.”
It’s no coincidence that the second period, as well, has been the worst of the year for Quinnipiac. Including Sunday, the Bobcats surrendered 47 goals in the second period, just two short of the 49 goals opponents have scored in the first and third periods combined.
“I thought we lost the game in the second period,” said Pecknold. “We had an issue with the second period all season long. I don’t know what it was but it was an issue.”
On Sunday, it was Mercyhurst’s David Wrigley — who was named tournament MVP — and Mike Carter who perpetuated that issue, each depositing a goal to give Mercyhurst the 3-2 edge entering the third.
As much as the story of the game was the momentum-shifting middle period, Quinnipiac’s inability to generate much offense and pressure with the man advantage was a major factor. Pecknold attributed his powerless power play to the absence of forward Brian Herbert.
“Brian Herbert is our power play,” said Pecknold, whose club was 31 percent on the man advantage with Herbert, while only 12 percent since losing him February 28 against Connecticut. “He was a huge loss to our team and our power play, and we’ve struggled to get things going without him.”
Despite a struggling power play, the Bobcats were able to even the game in the third period. Aaron Ludwig made an incredibly-fast centering pass to Tim Morrison, who fired a one-timer past Mercyhurst goaltender Andy Franck (27 saves) before the rookie could even attempt a save.
Curiously, the broadcast crew called for a television timeout immediately after the goal — something not standard to televised hockey games — allowing Gotkin and his team to regroup.
“One of the things that really helped us there was that when [Quinnipiac] tied it 3-3, we immediately had a TV timeout,” said Gotkin. “That was important, because we had a chance to talk to the kids and then get the pucks deep and get back to skating again.”
It also gave Mercyhurst the chance to generate the offense that led to the Bordieri penalty and the eventual game-winning goal.
The win advances the Lakers to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in program history. The Lakers have appeared in one Division III championship, two Division II championships and lost 4-3 to Michigan in 2001 in their only Division I tournament.