ERIE, Pa. — Come next Friday, when Mercyhurst hosts a first-round game in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, the Mercyhurst Ice Arena may have to have its name changed to “Mike Ella’s Barn.”
That’s because without Ella’s play of late, the building may have been dark.
With Ella stopping 28 of 29 shots, and also gaining his fourth straight crunch-time victory since taking over as starting goaltender on Feb. 19, the Lakers cruised to a 6-1 victory over Sacred Heart on Friday to clinch home ice in the first round of next week’s Atlantic Hockey playoffs.
The game was played before a crowd of 600 at what may have formerly been known as the Mercyhurst Ice Center.
“You don’t beat teams like Sacred Heart without outstanding goaltending, and Mike Ella applied that again tonight for us,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “Once again, he gave us a chance to win, and we did.”
With their win, the Lakers improved to 14-15-4 overall, and 13-7-3 in AH. It increased Mercyhurst’s point total to 29, keeping the Lakers in a second-place tie with Canisius (13-7-3), which beat Army 4-2 on Friday.
More important for the Lakers, however, was the fact that Holy Cross (11-7-5) played to a 2-2 tie with Bentley on Friday, which means that even with a Holy Cross win on Saturday and a Mercyhurst loss, the best the Crusaders can do is equal Mercyhurst with 29 points.
But because Mercyhurst took two out of three from the Holy Cross this year, including 4-3 and 3-2 victories with Ella in goal last weekend, the Lakers own the tiebreaker, and hence the first-round home ice game in the playoffs.
The loss dropped Sacred Heart (13-19-1) to 13-9-1 in AH, keeping the Pioneers at 27 points. With a win over Mercyhurst on Saturday, Sacred Heart can still catch the Lakers with 29 points, and could also have a first-round home game. If that happens, Holy Cross would then have to hit the road.
Quinnipiac (15-6-2) has already clinched first place, but second place is still up for grabs, depending on what Canisius, Mercyhurst, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross do on Saturday.
Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah described the story of the game in two numbers: “6-1,” he said.
“They (Mercyhurst) played really well,” Hannah said. “They capitalized on their chances to score, and we had a lot of chances to score and didn’t capitalize. We just didn’t execute our game plan well.”
As for the Pioneers not capitalizing, that was largely due to Mercyhurst’s penalty killing, where the Lakers killed 8-of-9 Sacred Heart power plays. By killing the first six, Mercyhurst’s streak of penalty kills extended to 39 before Alexandre Parent’s power play goal at 6 minutes, 25 seconds of the third period, which at the time pulled Sacred Heart to within 3-1.
“Any time you kill that many in a game, you’re putting yourself in a real good position to win,” Hannah said.
“Dave Smith, our associate head coach, runs our penalty kill, and everything you see out there is his system,” Gotkin said. “He pretty much tells me who he wants on the ice and when, and our guys have responded really well.”
Ella came on as starting goaltender four games ago, after the Lakers suffered a critical 4-3 home loss to Connecticut on Feb. 18 and appeared to be in danger of not finishing in the top four.
During that time, Ella has allowed just 7 goals in four games. For the season, his record is 5-3-1, but 4-0 since taking over as starter.
“It was a great win, and a great team effort by everyone,” said junior David Borrelli, who scored two goals. “We came out tonight knowing that we had to get two points under our belt, and the team came on and played real good tonight.”
Borrelli then praised Ella for another fine effort.
“Congrats to Ella on another big win, he’s been helping us out and playing great,” Borrelli said. “I think the team’s been falling on his back, and he’s been great.”
“It feels really good,” Ella said about his newfound importance on the team. “It was a great win.”
Ella said that the stepped-up play by the entire team has enabled him to step up, also.
“The guys have been playing really well in front of me the last few games. There haven’t been too many odd-man rushes, they’ve been clearing guys out from in front of the net, they’ve made it as easy as possible for me. Most of the players have been playing really well, which helps me to play well, too.”
Ella said that his positioning was working well on Friday.
“It was probably due to my angles, and moving out on top of my crease, because they were taking a lot of long shots through traffic, so I was just trying to stay out and take away as much of that as possible.”
Senior David Wrigley, who has been on a hot streak, opened the scoring at 7:40 of the first period. Wrigley scored his team-leading 15th goal of the season, and his seventh in his last seven games, by deflecting Jamie Hunt’s wrist shot from the left point past Sacred Heart goalie Kevin LaPointe.
Borrelli made it 2-0 with a power play goal 52 seconds after Wrigley’s score. Borrelli’s goal, which came from the goal crease after a pass from Kyle Gourgon, was his 13th of the season, and proved to be the game-winner.
“It was a great play by Benny [Cottreau],” Borrelli said. “He came up from our end and gave it to Kyle, and Kyle just kept skating while I kept skating to the net. Their guy played the high guy, which was Cottreau, and Kyle fed it across perfectly. I got a stick on it, and it went through the five-hole.”
T. J. Kemp made it 3-0, Mercyhurst, at 15:08 of the second period. Kemp’s goal, his 7th, came just one second into a Mercyhurst 5-on-3 advantage. Kemp one-timed a cross-ice pass from Scott Champagne past LaPoint from the left face-off circle.
Parent’s goal, at 6:25 of the third period, which cut Mercyhurst’s lead to 3-1, and ended the Lakers’ penalty-killing streak, came after a carom off a Mercyhurst defender in front of the net. The goal was Parent’s 8th.
Borrelli scored again at 9:41 of the third (his 14th), followed by freshman Cottreau (his 13th) at 11:22, and freshman Jamie Coghlan (his second), at 19:55.
Borrelli’s second goal came after Sacred Heart junior Bernie Chmiel got himself tangled up amongst players on the Lakers’ bench during a Mercyhurst up-ice rush, and wouldn’t leave, essentially placing his team a man short.
“We played really well, from top to bottom,” Gotkin said. “We beat a really good team in Sacred Heart. They’ve given us fits, and it was important for us to play well and find a way to win, and we did that.”
Gotkin said that the Lakers are nearing a peak at this point in the season.
“It’s been a roller-coaster year, but we like the way we’re playing right now,” he said. “To be able to play a playoff game here is huge for us, and we need to continue to play well.”
Mercyhurst out-shot the Pioneers 30-29. LaPoint suffered the defeat, falling to 10-14-1.
Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart meet again Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Mercyhurst Ice Ar—er, the Mike Ella Barn.