ERIE, Pa. — Backup goaltender Mike Ella may not have the notoriety of a Mariano Rivera, but Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin gave him the nod out of the bullpen to face American International on Saturday, and Ella closed the door for the Lakers.
Ella stopped 29 of 32 AIC shots, and extended his shutout skein to 94 minutes before allowing three late goals in the Lakers’ 6-3 victory over the Jackets before a crowd of 1,050 at the Mercyhurst Ice Center.
The win was a big one for Mercyhurst, which couldn’t close the door on Friday, when the Lakers suffered a heartbreaking 5-4 home-ice loss to Atlantic Hockey leader Holy Cross in a game that the Lakers led 3-1, and 4-3 with less than four minutes remaining.
It was also a big win for Ella, as it was his first collegiate victory. And it came on his birthday.
“It feels real good,” said Ella, whose record improved to 1-2-1, including a 0-0 overtime shutout of Robert Morris in his last outing, on Jan. 9. “The guys played really well in front of me, so I’m happy to get that first one. Being on my birthday made it even better.”
“Mike earned the start,” Gotkin said. “He works his tail off every day. He played great, and he’s proving that he can certainly be a goaltender in Division I hockey.”
Ella said that the Lakers came out with the same intensity against Holy Cross as they did against AIC, but their fortunes were better against the Jackets.
“We played really well against Holy Cross, but we had some bad bounces, and it just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “Today we got some quick goals, and it worked out in the end.”
Gotkin was pleased that his Lakers were able to bounce back after Friday’s tough defeat.
“We were real disappointed last night not being able to close it out against a very good Holy Cross team, but the great thing about back-to-back games is that you don’t have a long time to really dwell on things,” Gotkin said.
“Our guys got back to work today, and we did some real good things, and found a way to win a game that we needed to win.”
The win lifted Mercyhurst to 7-10-4 overall, and 6-2-3 in the AH race. It enabled the Lakers to pull into a tie with third-place Sacred Heart (7-3-1), which lost 2-0 at Bentley on Saturday. It also kept them within four points of first-place Holy Cross (8-2-3), which defeated Canisius 4-2 on Saturday. Mercyhurst owns two games in hand on Holy Cross.
American International, which upset Canisius 5-2 on Friday, fell to 2-13-1 overall, and remains in last place in AH at 2-7-1.
Like Friday, where they out-shot Holy Cross 36-28, the Lakers came out buzzing against the Jackets. Mercyhurst fired 52 shots at AIC goalie Frank Novello (2-13-1), who let six of them get past him.
Senior winger Rich Hansen combined with freshmen Ben Cottreau and Kerry Bowman to stake the Lakers to a 3-0 first period lead. Bowman scored his second to make it 4-0 after two, then Hansen scored again to increase Mercyhurst’s lead to 5-0 at the 1 minute, 46 second mark of period number three.
“I was standing in front of the net, and Matt Warren made a nice pass from behind the net right on my tape,” Hansen said, describing his second goal. “It was a great pass.”
Hansen’s goals were his third and fourth of the season, while Cottreau’s was his eighth. Bowman’s goals were his first and second of his collegiate career.
Then, like the fatal third period for Mercyhurst on Friday, AIC gave the Lakers a scare with three goals, which came from Ron Miller, Andy Walbert and Neil Sullivan. But Kyle Gourgon scored, and Ella — who is now 22 — shut the door.
“I don’t know why we’ve been struggling in the third period,” Gotkin said. “I’m sure it’s a mental thing, but I don’t know if there’s any quick answer to it.
“We blew the lead against Holy Cross in the third period last night, and gave up three goals in the third tonight, so it’s a concern,” he said.
“I don’t know if we get comfortable with the lead and ease up a little bit, or the other team just plays harder, I don’t know. But we’re going to look at it, and we’ve just got to work through it.”
American International coach Gary Wright refused to believe that the Jackets suffered a letdown after their big win at Canisius on Friday, or that they may have been a bit weary after playing their second game in two nights on the road.
“I can’t really find any excuses,” Wright said. “We just didn’t come to play.”
Wright said that the difference was that Mercyhurst was very hungry, which was a factor in the Lakers’ ability to throttle AIC’s comeback attempt.
“They were very impressive, and it wasn’t a good effort on our part,” Wright said. “We gave them a scare for a while, but then we took some disappointing penalties, and shot ourselves in the foot.”
“It was good to go into Canisius and steal one on the road, but we came out flat tonight,” Walbert, a junior forward who is AIC’s scoring leader, said. “You can’t fall behind 3-0 against a team like Mercyhurst. We never caught up.”
Walbert assisted on Miller’s goal, a power play goal at 5:56 of the third period. Walbert’s goal, his seventh of the season, came 2:39 after Miller’s, and cut the lead to 6-2.
Bowman’s first goal came at 16:13 of the first period, putting the Lakers up 3-0. He added his second at 9:20 of the second period, which increased Mercyhurst’s lead to 4-0, and proved to be the eventual game-winner.
“It was a great win for us, especially after coming off the backbreaking loss last night to Holy Cross,” Bowman said. “It was good to come back tonight and get two points in a huge game.”
Bowman said the he was relieved to get his first scores, which came in his 19th collegiate game. “You try not to get frustrated, but it’s always sitting in the back of your mind,” Bowman said. “It’s nice to get the monkey off your back.”
“We’ve been waiting for Kerry to put the puck in the net,” Gotkin said. “That first one is always the toughest one to get. He’s worked very hard, he’s a great kid, and he’s getting better every day. All the guys were excited for him.”
A key stat in the game was that Mercyhurst was assessed just three minor penalties for six minutes, while AIC had 10 for 20 minutes. Prior to Saturday, the Lakers had received 520 penalty minutes to 376 for their opponents.
“We’re not going to beat too many teams by going to the penalty box every other shift,” Gotkin said.
The Lakers host Canisius on Tuesday. American International returns to action with a home game against Bentley on Friday.