BUFFALO, N.Y. — A heated battle for position in the Atlantic Hockey standings was decided by a pair of shorthanded goals and — oddly enough — an even-strength goal by one of the nations leading shorthanded goal scorers as Mercyhurst collected a road victory over Canisius, 3-1, on Friday night at the Buffalo State Ice Arena in Buffalo.
Freshman center Grant Blakely and senior winger Neil Graham each scored on the penalty kill for the fourth place Lakers, who built a three point cushion over the fifth place Golden Griffins with the win.
Junior forward Mike Gurtler, whose four shorthanded goals have him tied for the Division I lead with Boston Universitys David Warsofsky, sandwiched his 10th goal of the season between the two special-teams tallies.
Shorthanded, you got your hard-working guys out there, said Gurtler, who assisted on Grahams second period goal. And thats where most of those come from — hard work.
Canisius may also want to blame wretched fate.
Blakelys goal at 17:08 of the first period, the first of the game, was the result of a magnificent individual effort. After tipping a loose puck over the Mercyhurst blue line, he bullied his way onto the right wing boards inside the Griffins zone, fought off a pair of defenders, and finally snapped a shot past goaltender Andrew Loewen.
But it also came after Canisius winger Scott Moser missed a point-blank, backdoor one-timer at the right post and senior center Josh Heidinger drilled the left post on a wrister from the right circle.
Gurtler upped the lead to 2-0 at 1:55 of the second period when he took a pass inside the left circle from linemate Derek Elliott, turned quickly, and slung a low shot through traffic that Loewen appeared to have difficulty tracking through the maze of moving bodies.
The Griffs had an opportunity to come back later in the period when Lakers defensemen Kevin Noble and Jeff Terminesi were sent to the penalty box in a 70-second span. Cory Conacher, the top scorer in D-I hockey with 43 points, cut the lead in half with a ferocious shot from the right circle on a 5-on-3 power play at the 7:07 mark.
Just over a minute later, misfortune intervened again for Canisius.
With less than 20 seconds remaining on Terminesis penalty, senior defenseman Carl Hudson — a Hobey Baker finalist and the highest-scoring defenseman in Griffs history — lined up a slap shot from the left point, dropped the hammer, and watched as his stick shattered into splinters.
The misfired puck went straight to Gurtler, who sidestepped Hudson, raced up the right wing, and fed Graham on the right side of Loewens doorstep for the final tally of the game.
A couple small mental lapses on our power play, and some good opportunistic play by Mercyhurst, shrugged Canisius head coach Dave Smith. That turns out to be the difference.
Are the Lakers, with their penchant for turning the tables on opposing power plays, cashing in on a systemic philosophy ingrained by longtime head coach Rick Gotkin?
No, Gotkin laughed after the game. I wish I could tell you it was something that I do, or that we do, but its not. You just get some of those bounces. I wish we could get some of those bounces on the power play. But well take goals any way we can get them.
After enduring a pair of difficult road losses to two of the toughest teams in the country last weekend — a 4-1 defeat at second-ranked Denver and a 5-3 setback against ninth-ranked Colorado College — Mercyhurst now has an opportunity, depending upon the results of the American International-Sacred Heart at Mildred Ice Arena in Fairfield, Conn. on Saturday night, to move into a second-place tie with Air Force in Atlantic Hockey.
Standing in the way, however, is a Canisius squad that will be grappling for the two points needed to keep the Lakers within closing distance for the fourth position in the conference and home-ice advantage in the upcoming playoffs.
Every game from here on out, you want to get points, Gurtler said. If we dont win tomorrow, its right back to square one, up only one point on (Canisius). We want to have control of finishing fourth. We dont want to leave that in other teams hands. We want to take care of ourselves.
The Griffins (13-12-4 overall, 11-9-3 in Atlantic Hockey) travel to Erie, Pa. to face the Lakers (13-16-2, 13-8-2) on Saturday at 7 p.m.