WORCESTER, Mass. — Merychurst’s Rich Hansen put the Lakers up 4-2 with 12:27 left to play in the third, and Holy Cross’ dreams of clinching the Atlantic Hockey regular season title tonight seemed all but gone. But a four-goal explosion in the final 10 minutes of the game lifted the Crusaders over Mercyhust 6-4. Holy Cross’ five-goal third period clinched the team’s first regular season title in the school’s history.
“I think at the beginning of the third when they were up 4-2,” said Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, whose team is now 6-1-1 in its last eight. “That could have been lights out. But [Greg] Kealey gets us right back in it and [Tony] Quesada makes a breakaway save at 4-2. That got us going from there.”
Mercyhurst (16-13-2, 13-7-1 AH) claimed the previous three regular season titles in the MAAC before being derailed by the Crusaders. Holy Cross (19-7-3, 17-2-2 AH), who didn’t lead all night until the final 10 minutes, has yet to relinquish the first-place position since the season’s start. The Crusaders are now one win away from their fourth 20-win season.
“This season has been a big change for us,” said Holy Cross senior Tim Coskren who tallied a goal and two assists on the night. “From not making the playoffs our freshman year to being first in the league, you have to look at all the hard work the guys have put in. We’ve been getting good players over the years. I couldn’t dream it any better.”
Holy Cross goaltender Tony Quesada turned aside 25 Laker shots. Arguably, his best save came with just under 10 minutes to play in the third when Holy Cross trailed 4-2. Mercyhurst’s Mike Carter came away with a turnover and skate in unmolested on Quesada just three minutes after the Lakers went back up by two. Quesada flashed the right pad and kept the Crusaders within striking distance.
“That save made a big turnaround for us,” said Coskren. “[Quesada's] been making saves like that for us all season. That gave us the momentum we needed.”
The Crusaders began crashing the net early on Mercyhurst goaltender Andy Franck and forced the Lakers to take penalties. Holy Cross was afforded nine power-play opportunities on the evening. The Lakers stifled Holy Cross’ chances and barely let the Crusaders set up until the third period when they tallied twice with the man-advantage.
“We’ve been struggling all year on the power play,” noted Coskren. “[Getting two goals tonight] will hopefully be a good sign for the last few games. It certainly helped us down the stretch tonight.”
Holy Cross had to play catch up for 50 minutes of the match. Despite being outshot in the first period 11-8, the Lakers took a two goal lead into the locker room with goals by Erik Johnson and David Wrigley.
“We knew we had to work hard,” said Holy Cross captain Greg Kealey, who had one goal on the night. “Coach Pearl has instilled that in us for the last three years. I think that fifth line in the sky has come through for us a few times.”
Senior J.R. Walker got Holy Cross on the board 4:49 into the second period. Walker pinched down low in the right corner. He walked out on Franck who got the paddle down for the first shot, but Walker’s rebound attempt got past him to cut the Laker lead to 2-1.
Freshman Kyle Gourgon put the Lakers back on top by two with 3:27 left in the second when he walked across the slot and got Quesada to bite on the deke. The sprawling Quesada couldn’t recover in time as Gourgon slid the puck underneath him.
Andrew Weber brought Holy Cross within one yet again with 13:15 left to play in the third. From the left circle, Weber sniped a shot past Franck low to the glove side to pull Holy Cross to 3-2.
The Crusaders weren’t making things easy on themselves when Sean Nappo took back-to-back penalties. After successfully killing the first, Mercyhurst capitalized on the second when Hansen collected a Quesada rebound and scored with 12:27 left in regulation.
From there on out, however, it was all Holy Cross. Kealey shoveled in a pass from Coskren that found him open in the slot on the power play.
“That was just a great pass from [Coskren] in the slot,” said Kealey. “I just put myself in front. That seems to be my spot. I just had to shovel it in.”
Freshman Tanner Fogarty knotted the game at 4-4 when he beat Franck top shelf and forced a Mercyhurst timeout with 8:54 remaining.
Just over three minutes later, Coskren rocketed home a one-timer from the top of the left circle on the power play to give Holy Cross its first lead of the game.
The Lakers didn’t help their cause when they were charged with two tripping penalties with 3:18 remaining in the game putting Holy Cross on a 5-on-3. Holy Cross did little but play a prevent power play to lock the game away. Marc Bianchi would add an empty-net goal with nine seconds left before the Crusaders mobbed one another in their own end to celebrate their first regular season championship.
“It’s been a long road,” commented Kealey. “After missing the playoffs my freshman year, we’ve had a tough draw and been through a lot. The last three years have been about hard work and now it’s paying off. Freshman year we would have lost tonight’s game by one goal, but now we’re winning those games by one goal.”