WORCESTER, Mass. — Mercyhurst didn’t win a game over the final month of the regular season, but that might as well have been a century ago.
The sixth-seeded Lakers twice rebounded from one-goal deficits before taking the lead for good in the third period to grab a 1-0 lead in their best-of-three Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series at third-seeded Holy Cross on Friday night.
Mercyhurst backed its way into the postseason after going winless in its final eight regular-season contests, but swept Army in a best-of-three opening-round series on home ice last week.
“We weren’t crazy about the way we came down the stretch, even though I’m not sure we played all that bad,” said Lakers’ coach Rick Gotkin. “But bottom line is I think for us to be able to play and get a little momentum last week was important.”
The Crusaders, meanwhile, entered the series with a five-game unbeaten streak, but hadn’t played since a 2-0 win over Army two weeks ago.
Holy Cross opened the scoring at 10:31 of the opening frame when Shayne Stockton joined an attack led by linemate Adam Schmidt and slotted a loose puck past Lakers’ goaltender Jordan Tibbett from just inside the right faceoff circle.
It was a rare flash of action in a period that featured no penalties and no other high-quality scoring chances.
“We just wanted to get our legs under us at first,” Mercyhurst sophomore Daniel Bahntge explained. “Coming into a new playoff series, you want to get a feel for it, definitely, but I feel like we found our legs quickly in the second.”
The cautious tempo that often characterizes the first period of a playoff series was erased midway through the second frame.
Holy Cross goalie Matt Ginn bobbled a routine glove save and covered the puck a fraction of a second prior to a goalmouth collision that sent the puck sliding into the net. The referees waved off both the goal and a host of protests from the Lakers’ bench, but the controversy was sufficient to ratchet up the intensity level of the contest.
A trio of overlapping minor penalties gave Mercyhurst an extended power play that included two stretches of a five-on-three advantage. The Lakers eventually capitalized, initiating a flurry of action over the period’s final four minutes.
Defenseman Tyler Shiplo powered home a slap shot from the point at 16:07 that caromed off Ginn’s stick-side post to knot the game at 1-1.
“That third one was unfortunate, but they have to call it,” Crusaders’ coach Paul Pearl said of the stretch of infractions that accounted for the only three penalties of the contest for either side. “You have to stay out of the box. Unfortunately, we didn’t for that five-minute stretch and it wears you out.”
Holy Cross regained the lead at 18:20 when Mike McNamara redirected a drive from Karl Beckman past Tibbett, but Bahntge caught the Crusaders sleeping on the ensuing faceoff and answered just nine seconds later for Mercyhurst.
“I saw I had two of my teammates with me, but the puck was bobbling a little bit and I didn’t want to make a bad pass, so I just bore down, shot the puck and it went in the net,” said Bahntge.
Seven minutes into the third period, the Lakers took the lead for good.
Grant Blakey took advantage of chaos left over from a goalmouth scramble and chipped a shot wide of Ginn to notch his 11th goal – and team-high fourth game-winner – of the year.
Rob Linsmayer challenged Tibbets on a breakaway chance moments later, but that was the closest Holy Cross came to equalizing over the final 12 minutes and change.
The Crusaders managed just 26 shots in the game, compared to 34 and 38, respectively, in the two regular season meetings in Erie, Pa.
“We’re going to have to find some ways to score some goals and generate some more grade ‘A’ scoring opportunities,” Pearl said. “I thought they did a really good job of taking away the middle of the ice. We didn’t get there and we have to be better at that tomorrow.”
Mercyhurst, however, hopes tomorrow brings more of the same.
“I think we need to enjoy this for about five minutes,” Gatkin summarized. “And then [we will] try to refocus, make a few tweaks and adjustments and hopefully, come back and play well again.”