WEST POINT, N.Y. — Saturday night, second-seeded Mercyhurst flirted with playoff death. Sunday, the Lakers’ hopes perished.
A two-goal game for rookie sensation Pierre-Luc O’Brien, along with a 22-save performance by netminder Kevin LaPointe, propelled fourth seed Sacred Heart to a 3-2 upset victory in the second semifinal of the Atlantic Hockey tournament, ending the Lakers’ hopes of repeating as champion and returning to the NCAAs.
Sacred Heart will meet top-seeded Holy Cross in the championship game next Saturday night at Army’s Tate Rink.
“Awesome,” said Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah, whose clubs in the past have struggled in the playoffs, and two years ago fell in the MAAC semifinals to eventual champ Quinnipiac. “It’s rewarding to see the guys on the team. Seeing them come together as a group and do what it take to get to the championship game is just great.”
The Pioneers pulled off the upset using a tight defensive set that limited Mercyhurst to only 24 shots on goal, and, even more importantly, holding the Lakers scoreless on the power play (0-for-7).
The championship-game matchup translates to the fact that the NCAA tournament will see a new face this year. Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac are the only two schools to ever represent the then-MAAC in the tournament. Quinnipiac fell in Saturday’s quarterfinals to Canisius.
The thought of going to the NCAA tournament, though in the back of the head, is not something Hannah wants his club to worry about.
“The guys are aware of [the tournament],” said Hannah. “But we’ve said it all year. We’re going to take things one game at a time. We can’t take the second step until we take the first one.”
Both teams began the game with a lot of zip, and Mercyhurst had the first chance to draw blood. David Wrigley, who had the tying goal in Saturday’s 5-4 quarterfinal win over Bentley, appeared to have an empty net only to have LaPointe get a piece of the shot and knock it high over the net.
Shortly thereafter, Sacred Heart took over territorial control thanks to back-to-back Mercyhurst penalties. Though they were held off the board in the man up situation, the Pioneers proceeded to strike first when O’Brien, the Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year, scored his first of the night at 14:22.
Skating with a head of steam down the left wing, he wristed what looked like an innocent shot on Mercyhurst goaltender Jordan Wakefield (27 saves). The rookie, though, wasn’t set when the shot was released and got beat cleanly through the five-hole to give SHU the 1-0 lead.
The second period featured the high-flying offenses for each club and with that, two goals for each.
Mercyhurst started the scoring at 2:55 when Kyle Gourgon scored a controversial goal on the power play. His original shot was saved by LaPointe, but momentum carried the Pioneer goaltender backwards. It appeared that he kept the puck out of the net but Gourgon took a second whack on which, according to the goal judge, the puck crossed the line.
None of the on-ice officials saw the puck cross, but after a conference with the goal judge the marker was allowed.
Sacred Heart responded immediately. On the power play, Konn Hawkes pinched from the left point, took a feed from behind the net and rifled a wrist shot off of Wakefield’s left shoulder into the top corner at 4:06 to give the Pioneers back the lead.
A little more than a minute later could have been a turning point. Mercyhurst’s Wrigley was given a five-minute major for high-sticking at 5:17, giving the Sacred Heart power play a chance to take control of the game. Instead, Erik Johnson took a shorthanded breakaway pass from Conrad Martin and misfired on the shot just enough to fool LaPointe and even the game at 5:44.
Under the mindset that one good shorthander deserves another, O’Brien scored his second of the night, this time with his team down a man, stealing the puck behind the net, walking out front and firing to the far side for the 3-2 lead through two.
In the third period, it was up to the Sacred Heart defense to shut things down. While managing only four shots themselves, the Pioneers seemed happy to protect the lead, allowing just eight Mercyhurst shots and none of threatening quality.
As the clock ticked down through the final tense second, the partisan Sacred Heart crowd roared as the players and coaching staff celebrated their first trip to the championship game.
Said senior captain Chuck Metcalfe, “It sure feels good in my last year to be one game away.”
And if the Pioneers can pull off one more upset next weekend, the feeling will be better than good. As Hannah says, it would be “Awesome!”