This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 19, 2006

Mercyhurst Goaltending: No Small Problem

I’ve written a good bit about Mercyhurst’s goaltending situation this season, mostly because it’s unique to see a school put itself in the situation the Lakers currently are in.

Mercyhurst began the season with four — yes, four — goaltenders, all of whom the coaching staff believed could play at the Division I level. Along the way, one was lost — Andy Franck was dismissed from the team early on — but the thought of rotating even three goaltenders in and out of the net would make the average person’s head spin.

All season, the party line remained the same for head coach Rick Gotkin:

“We like all three of our goaltenders.”

But somewhere deep down, you had to believe that even on the craftiest of coaches, rotating a triumvirate of netminders has to have its problems.

So it should come as no surprise that the same goaltender has played three straight games for the Lakers. If there’s any surprise, it should be in which of the three survived.

Tyler Small, a rookie of whom the Lakers expected a lot before the season, has made the last three starts in the Mercyhurst net. He won two of them last weekend, making 72 saves in two games against Connecticut, and dropped a tough overtime decision in the first of the three starts two weekends ago at Army.

Gotkin said that, in all likelihood, Small’s start streak will reach four on Friday night at home against American International and a good performance would likely mean yet another start in Saturday’s rematch.

What does this mean? It means that Mercyhurst is gearing up for the playoffs.

“Absolutely, that’s what we’re searching for,” said Gotkin when asked if his goal is to find a clear-cut number-one goaltender. “We’re not sure if we’re at that point yet. We still have 14 games left. But that’s what we’d like to have.

“We haven’t had a clear-cut rotation other than that we wanted to keep three guys involved until Christmas. Now we’re looking for a guy to bring us down the stretch.”

If Small is the man, he’s certainly carrying the best credentials. His 5-2-0 record, 3.25 goals against average and .909 save percentage are all tops on the team.

Small got his chance to earn the number-one role just two weekends ago. After a 5-0 loss at the hands of Army, a game in which Mike Ella surrendered five goals on 32 shots, Gotkin decided to give Small a look in the Saturday rematch.

“Tyler played great [against Army]. He gave us a great chance to win,” said Gotkin. “We decided based on a gut feeling to come back with him at UConn and he played really great again.

“Is he the guy down the stretch? I don’t know. That’s the way I’m leaning. I think he’s earned it.”

The situation to carry three (and, as mentioned, at one point four) goaltenders may seem a bit strange, but it’s a promise Gotkin made to himself. Three seasons ago, when neither Matt Cifelli nor Andy Franck could finish a game one night, Gotkin had no choice but to put in practice goaltender Ryan Kobel. It was an awkward situation and one Gotkin will avoid in the future.

“Since then, I’ve said I’ll always carry at least three goaltenders,” said Gotkin.

The problem often associated with doing so, though, is the mental battle that some goaltenders can wage with themselves knowing that one mistake may result in them riding the pine for some time.

“All three of our guys have been terrific about the whole goalie situation,” Gotkin said. “I sense no animosity from anybody towards anyone. They’ve all done what we’ve asked. How they feel deep down inside, I don’t know. But we don’t sense any real problem at this point other than the fact that every competitive athlete wants to play.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week

Dave Borrelli, Mercyhurst: Referred to by his coach as an often-forgotten weapon, Borrelli’s performance won’t soon be forgotten by UConn. The senior captain of the Lakers buried three goals and added two assists in the weekend sweep. Borrelli’s 14 goals lead the Lakers.

Goaltender of the Week

Brad Roberts, Army: Continuing to prove that he’s returned to his form of old, Roberts stopped 55 of 61 Holy Cross shots last weekend, earning himself and the Black Knights a split of the two-game series. In Saturday night’s win, Roberts made 29 saves, including 12 in the second period.

Rookie of the Week

Tim Manthey, Army: The much-talked-about Manthey scored the tying goal and assisted on the game-winner in the closing minutes as Army upset Holy Cross, 3-2, on “Derek Hines Night.”

Remembering a Hero

In the final chapter to a tough but inspiring story, Army hockey honored the late Derek Hines, a former Army captain who was killed in the line of duty on September 1, 2005, while serving in Afghanistan.

Head coach Brian Riley addressed the packed crowd at Tate Rink between the first and second periods of Saturday’s game against Holy Cross, paying tribute to the 5-foot-6 powerhouse affectionately referred to as “Hinesy.”

Said Riley, “At 5-6 and 165 pounds, ‘Hinesy’ was certainly not the biggest player when he stepped on the ice. But when the game started, he played as big as anybody out there.

“As a result of his hard-working attitude, he was a fan favorite here at Tate Rink. I know all college hockey fans would have loved to see Derek play for their team. You could not have asked for a better teammate than Hinesy.

“His biggest concern was always for his fellow teammates. Derek never put himself before the team, and as a result, was respected and held in the highest regard by everybody with whom he played. I know that every college hockey player would have considered it an honor to be a teammate of Derek’s.”

Hines’ Commanding Officer, Capt. Mike Klopper, called Hines a “team-builder,” noting, “It was also immediately apparent that I had an Army hockey player on my hands — supremely competitive, absolutely fit, exceptional intelligence, with a work ethic that was unmatched.”

In more than appropriate fashion, Army rallied from a 2-0 deficit, scoring twice in the second period to even the game before Lyle Gal redirected a Casey Buckley shot from the point with 2:31 remaining for the game-winner.

“This win was big for a lot of reasons,” said Riley after the game. “I told the guys that you will only have one opportunity to play on Derek Hines Night. Now we can all look back fondly on this game and know that we came away with a ‘W.'”

Closing Shots

• Mercyhurst was the recipient of a rare penalty shot last Friday night in its 6-3 victory over Connecticut. Ryan Toomey was awarded the clean breakaway and scored on UConn’s Scott Tomes. It turned out to be the game-winning goal.

• AIC netminder Tom Fenton surrendered five goals in just over 22 minutes last Friday night, which might be a bit shocking when you consider his recent stats. The Yellow Jacket netminder hadn’t allowed more than two goals since December 2 (a 5-0 loss to RIT). It was no surprise, then, for Fenton to bounce back on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over Bentley, allowing just one goal on 34 shots.

• With the victory Friday night at Army, Holy Cross goaltender Tony Quesada took over the school’s all-time record for career wins. Quesada’s 46 surpassed Paul Pijonowski, who played for the ‘Cross from 1984 to 1987.

• Canisius is in the midst of the longest losing streak since the team moved to the Division I level in 1998. The 10-game streak matches the school’s longest winless drought (0-8-2) over the same time frame.

• After starting the season 0-5-1 in league play, Army is 6-2-1 in its last nine. The Black Knights have moved out of last place and are now just one point behind fourth-place Bentley for the final home-ice position.

• Bentley’s 7-3 victory over American International on Friday was the largest single-game scoring output for the Falcons since February 15, 2002, when they notched a 7-4 victory over none other than AIC.

• Holy Cross was the only member of Atlantic Hockey to be ranked when the PairWise Rankings made their debut on Wednesday. The Crusaders, who posses the ninth-best winning percentage in the nation, are the only team with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) above .5000. Holy Cross’ RPI is .5064. Mercyhurst is the next closest Atlantic Hockey team at .4878.

• When asked if his team’s numerous close games recently are giving him heartburn, Mercyhurst’s Gotkin responded to the contrary. “Games are always tougher to win after January. There’s more urgency in every single game. The more of these types of games that we can be in and be successful, it will make us better and prepare us for what will be a real intense playoff situation.”