ERIE, Pa. — Sloppy, sluggish, barely-escape-with-your-life one-goal wins have become a way of life for Mercyhurst lately.
Such was the case again Friday, when the Lakers, currently riding in second-place in the Atlantic Hockey Association, squeaked past eighth-place American International 4-3 at the Mercyhurst Ice Center in a game where they nearly let yet another sizable lead slip away in the late-going.
Not that Lakers’ coach Rick Gotkin won’t take a one-goal victory. Any coach would.
But when it comes at home against a team that the Lakers clobbered 9-0 on the road on Dec. 6, and owned an 11-1-1 record in the all-time series between the two schools headed into the game — not to mention, being the third straight game where his team barely escaped with a win after leading by two or more goals — it left Gotkin with a frown on his face rather than a smile.
“Sure, we’re happy anytime we win — and we’ll take the two points — but simply put, we played awful,” Gotkin said. “And you can quote me on that.”
The win got the Lakers back on the plus side of the ledger overall, at 10-9-1. In AH, they improved to 7-3, good for 14 points, and a three-point lead over idle Canisius (4-4-3). Mercyhurst still trails first-place Holy Cross (12-1-1) by 11 points, however, although the Lakers own four games in hand over the Crusaders and have one game at Holy Cross remaining.
AIC fell to 3-14-2 overall and 2-7-2 in the conference. The Jackets remain in a tie with idle Bentley (1-6-4) for last place.
Scoring one goal in the first period and two more in the first half of the second period to go up 3-0, the Lakers appeared headed toward another blowout of AIC, maybe even similar to the Dec. 9 game in Springfield, Mass., but the Yellow Jackets had other ideas.
Jeremy Leroux and Guillaume Caron put the puck past AH Goaltender of the Week Andy Franck in the latter part of the second period to cut AIC’s deficit to 3-2, and all of a sudden, just like in Mercyhurst’s hair-raising 3-2 and 2-1 victories over Bentley last week, it was a new hockey game.
“Give AIC credit, they played well,” said Gotkin. “But a lot of (their comeback) was due to us, we had too many breakdowns, too many mental errors. We’re making it tough on ourselves, and that’s not the way that we should be playing.”
But like last week, the Lakers, despite themselves, once again found a way to hang on.
With AIC still trailing 3-2 and on a power play, senior forward Mike Carter stemmed the tide with a short-handed score at 10:42 of the third period to put the Lakers back up by two goals, 4-2.
Carter’s goal, his 6th of the season, looked to be an insurance goal at the time, but ended up being the game-winner when AIC’s Ryan Robin scored at 19:55 after the Jackets had lifted goaltender Frank Novello in favor of an extra attacker.
Carter’s shorthanded goal came just after he got out of the penalty box ending a two-man advantage by AIC, but still leaving the Lakers a man short. After he blocked Preston Cicchine’s shot from the point, the puck ricocheted off his shin pads into the neutral zone, where the speedy winger beat Cicchine to it, then scored on Novello with a 10-foot wrister into the upper right corner.
“I just got out of the penalty box, and was lucky enough to block the shot, then beat the shooter to the puck,” said Carter, who was credited with an unassisted goal.
“That really hurt us,” said AIC coach Gary Wright. “When you play a team as strong as Mercyhurst, you can’t afford to make a mistake like that.”
But like Gotkin, Carter was not happy with the Lakers’ lethargic performance, particularly in the late-going.
“We have to come out with a better effort,” he said. “We should have played a lot tougher and a lot faster, but we didn’t. They played us tough, but we should have played better.”
Rich Hansen’s power-play score, with Jay Fennessy off for slashing, gave Mercyhurst its 1-0 lead at 12:50 of the first period. Hansen’s goal, his fifth of the season, came after David Wrigley walked right in on goal, drawing Novello toward him. Wrigley slid the puck to Hansen cutting in back door on the right, and Hansen poked it into an empty net.
David Borrelli’s ninth goal of the season, at 6:52 of the second period, made it 2-0, and Wrigley’s team-leading 11th made it 3-0 just 15 seconds later.
Borrelli scored from the doorstep off a centering pass from Erik Johnson, while Wrigley scored on a backhander after a nice fake in the crease.
Leroux’s score, his seventh of the season, which cut it to 3-1, came when Caron’s pass sprung him on a 2-on-1. Leroux beat Franck far side top shelf.
Caron’s goal, a shorthanded score, made it 3-2 at 15:57 of the second. His team-leading 12th goal of the season came after Fennessy stopped a Mercyhurst shot, then hit Caron in the neutral zone, springing him on a breakaway.
“Although we lost, I was pleased with our team’s effort and competitiveness,” Wright said. “The kids also competed well defensively, and countered their (Mercyhurst’s) speed transitionally.”
Mercyhurst outshot the Jackets 40-20. Franck made 17 saves to up his record to 8-5-1. Including last week, when he stopped 67 of Bentley’s 70 shots, Franck has stopped 84 of the opponents’ last 90 shots. He came into the game with a .902 save percentage. Novello made 36 saves. His record fell to 2-5-2.
The two teams meet again Saturday at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.
“We’ll need more out of some of our guys than we’ve been getting, and we’ll have to play a lot better if we hope to beat them (AIC) on Saturday,” Gotkin said. “They (AIC) have a lot of confidence right now.”
“We’ll have to be more disciplined on Saturday,” Wright said. “We’ll have to play our ‘A’ game, and continue to get back on defense.”