ERIE, Pa. — Mercyhurst has Army’s number.
And it’s a good thing for the Lakers, because their numbers surely needed a lift.
Four players scored a goal apiece, and junior goaltender Andy Franck posted his third shutout of the season to propel Mercyhurst — currently sitting in fifth place in Atlantic Hockey — to a fairly easy 4-0 victory over the Black Knights before a crowd of 875 at the Mercyhurst Ice Center on Saturday.
Saturday’s win completed a weekend sweep for Mercyhurst over visiting Army, and came on the heels of a 5-4 overtime victory on Friday. It was also the Lakers’ third straight win over the Black Knights this season, and their 13th in 15 meetings since Army joined the defunct Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Hockey League in 2000-01.
More important for Mercyhurst, it kept the Lakers, who have been just 5-5-1 in the conference since Jan. 1, well in the hunt for at least a fourth-place finish, and a first-round home game in the playoffs.
“We needed four points this weekend, and we got them,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin (17th year, 308-181-32) said.
With its pair of important victories over the Black Knights, Gotkin’s club improved to 10-14-4 overall, and 9-6-3 in AH.
“We’ve actually played this way in a lot of the games that we’ve lost this year,” Gotkin said. “We’ve worked hard all year, but haven’t gotten a lot of bounces. This weekend we found a way to win.”
Despite their back-to-back wins, the Lakers remained behind Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, Canisius and Quinnipiac, respectively, for the right to a first-round home game. Now with 21 points, Mercyhurst did, however, pull to within a point of fourth-place Quinnipiac (10-5-2), which lost 5-2 at Holy Cross on Saturday.
Last-place Army, which had suffered one-goal defeats in four of its five previous games before Saturday, slipped to 3-18-2 overall and 2-14-2 in AH. The Black Knights remain two points behind American International (3-13-2) for eighth place, and the right to host the conference’s play-in game on Mar. 8.
“Army may be in last place statistically, but they’re a heck of a last-place hockey team,” Gotkin said. “They work their tails off every single shift, they’re physical, and they never quit. We got lucky last night, and our skill paid off tonight, but this wasn’t an easy weekend.”
“Mercyhurst is a skilled team, and if you give them open ice, they make you pay,” first-year Army coach Brian Riley said. “Franck made the saves that he had to, and it was a good all-around effort by them.”
It was the same old story for Army on Saturday — its inability to score goals. Prior to the Mercyhurst series, the Black Knights had averaged just 1.57 goals per game, and had been held to two goals or less in 16 of its 21 games. Those numbers became even worse after Saturday.
“You’re not going to beat anybody if you don’t score goals,” Riley said.
Mercyhurst did score goals — by defensemen T. J. Kemp and Jamie Hunt, and forwards David Wrigley and Kyle Gourgon.
Kemp, a senior who is returning to form after missing seven games due to injury, got Mercyhurst off and running with his fourth goal of the season at 6 minutes, 27 seconds of the first period. Kemp’s goal, one of three power play goals that the Lakers scored, was assisted by Scott Champagne and Rich Hansen.
“I passed the puck to Hansen who gave it to Champagne,” Kemp said. “Champagne had great patience with the puck, and just held onto it, then gave it across to me. I tried to backhand it in, and it trickled across the goal line.”
Kemp’s goal appeared to give the Lakers a big lift. “It’s great to get back, and great to get a couple of wins over the weekend,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team to get back on a roll and try to get into first place again.”
“When T. J. Kemp is healthy and playing well, he’s one of the best, if not the best defensemen in the conference,” Gotkin said. “It’s good to have him back.”
Hunt, a sophomore, made it 2-0 at 5:29 of the second period. Hunt’s goal, which came on a severe angle from the left side, was his fourth of the season, and was assisted by Champagne and Wrigley.
“It was just lucky,” Hunt said. “Their defenseman rimmed it around the boards, and I picked it up and shot it toward net. I didn’t expect it to go in, I was just trying to put it in the slot, but it deflected off a defenseman’s shin pads and went in.”
“Jamie’s a skilled guy,” Gotkin said. “We need him to bring some of that offense that he does.”
“It was huge for us to win two in a row for once,” Hunt said. “We haven’t done that since November.”
Wrigley’s goal, his 12th of the season, came at 15:39 of the second period, and increased Mercyhurst’s lead to 3-0. With the Lakers owning a two-man advantage, Wrigley fired the puck past goaltender Treye Kettwick from 10 feet on the left side after slick tic-tac-toe passing around Army’s triangle defense by Kemp and Champagne.
With assists from Jamie Coghlan and Hansen, Gourgon closed the scoring at 19:08 of the third period. Gourgon’s goal, his fourth, was also a power play score, making the Lakers 3-for-8 their power play attempts.
Franck, who stopped all 23 Army shots, increased his record to 9-11-3.
Kettwick, who is now 2-12-2, stopped 20 of Mercyhurst’s 24 shots.
Riley didn’t feel that his team might have been flat after its tough loss on Friday, where Mercyhurst came from behind four times, then won in overtime after tying the game on David Borrelli’s shorthanded goal with 3:02 remaining in regulation.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games, and our guys have always come back and played hard the next game, so I don’t think that was the case,” Riley said. “We just couldn’t score a goal. If you find a way to get one, that gives you a little momentum, but it just never got to that point.”
Army looks to get back on the winning track as well as improve its chances to host the play-in game when Bentley visits West Point on Saturday and Sunday.
“We’ve just got to find a way to win a game,” Riley said. “We’re close in all these games, it’s just a matter of us making that next step to win a game. But I have no doubt that our guys will be ready to play next week. Bentley is certainly a very tough team, so it should make a pretty good match-up at home.”
Mercyhurst looks to continue its bid for a first-round home game when it hosts Connecticut on Friday and Saturday.