This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Feb. 7, 2008

Moving Up, Not Out

The Mercyhurst Lakers have their destiny in their own hands as we head down the stretch with just four weeks left in the season. Currently in tied for fourth place with Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst will play the Pioneers, plus league-leading RIT and second-place Air Force. The Lakers have lost just once in their last 11 conference games (7-1-3) and if they can keep the momentum going, could find themselves atop the standings when the dust has settled.

“No question,” said coach Rick Gotkin. “We have a great opportunity based on the teams we have left to play. We have Air Force at home, then go to Sacred Heart, then come back for RIT and finish with Canisius. Those are some tough games, but we’re playing with confidence right now.”

When I asked what’s been the reason for the Lakers’ success since December, Gotkin said it was mostly hard work paying off and getting some breaks.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” he said. “We’ve played well all year but have been on the wrong side of a couple of bounces and haven’t gotten may breaks. We’ve had injuries (including starting goaltender Matt Lundin, who missed nine games in October and November).

“We’re starting to get on the right side of the breaks, and we’re getting scoring from a lot of different people, which is building confidence for everybody, and confidence is a big part of the game. We’ve been getting good defense and goaltending. It’s been a total team effort, which as a coach, is great to see.”

Gotkin’s team, known for its run-and-gun style, has been forced to focus on their own end more with goals being harder to come by this season.

“Goal scoring throughout the nation is down,” he said. “It’s a credit to the goaltenders. But our philosophy hasn’t changed. We’re still playing up-tempo and we’re going to try to score as many goals as we can. We’re not exactly a defensive juggernaut, but the guys have bought into playing well in all zones and taking care of the puck in our own end.”

The Lakers need to keep it up with the tough stretch of games ahead.

“The parity (in the league) is off the charts,” said Gotkin. “It’s gotta be fun for the fans but it drives the coaches nuts (laughs). It’s going to come down to the last Saturday of the season.”

While the Lakers are looking to move up in the league, they’re not looking to move out of Atlantic Hockey, despite rumors to the contrary.

“We have no interest in leaving Atlantic Hockey,” said Mercyhurst Athletic Director Craig Barnett, who coached at Findlay in College Hockey America before the school dropped its hockey program. “Rick Gotkin built this program over 20 years to this level. We don’t want to change any of the relationships we have. It wouldn’t be a smart move for Mercyhurst College.”

Barnett has some theories on why Mercyhurst and Canisius keep coming up as possible teams to bail out College Hockey America.

“We’ve said all along that we want to help and do what we can,” he said. “Our location comes up as well. The same for Canisius, plus its strong relationship with Niagara.”

In an ideal world, Barnett says he would like to see Atlantic Hockey absorb the CHA teams, and form two divisions, each with an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. “But I’d support a 14 team league with one auto-bid if it helped to save these programs.”

I suggested to Barnett that what could happen is four independent teams next season begging for games, asking if some teams could change their non-conference schedules to accommodate them.

“On our media day, the same day when Wayne State announced (that it was dropping hockey); that was the time to start looking at those kind of options,” said Barnett. “There are a lot of scenarios and rumors out there. We hear them too. We’ll do what we can, but we’re going to act in the best interests of our program, which means we have no interest in leaving Atlantic Hockey. We want to be associated with the AHA.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for February 4, 2008:
Bear Trapp – Sacred Heart

Trapp came back from a two-week layoff due to injury with a vengeance, becoming the first player in school history to record six points in a single game. The junior had two goals and four assists in a 7-3 win over Canisius.

Goaltender of the Week for February 4, 2008:
Josh Kassel – Army

Kassel wins the award for the second week in a row. After a 58 save performance last weekend, the junior stopped 41 of 42 shots to lead the Black Knights to a sweep of Connecticut. Kassel has won five games in a row and allowed just four goals over that span.

Rookie of the Week for February 4, 2008:
Cory Conacher – Canisius

Conacher had four points to help the Griffins earn a split with Sacred Heart. He had an assist in Friday’s loss, and two goals and an assist in Saturday’s victory. Conacher missed the first part of the season due to injury, but is making up for lost time with 11 points in ten games.

Monthly Awards

Player of the Month for January:
Simon Lambert – RIT

The senior forward helped the Tigers go 4-2-1 in January, He has 10 points in his last eight games and leads the conference in points with 23 through 20 games.
Other Players Nominated: Jason Weeks (Canisius), Dale Reinhardt (Holy Cross); Alexandre Parent (Sacred Heart)

Goaltender of the Month for January:
Andrew Loewen – Canisius

The sophomore had the best month for any goalie in the school’s Division I era, posting a 0.99 GAA and a .969 save percentage in January.
Other Goalies Nominated: Joe Calvi, (Bentley), Beau Erickson (Connecticut) Matt Lundin, (Mercyhurst), Louis Menard, (RIT), Stefan Drew (Sacred Heart)

Rookie of the Month for January:
Erik Peterson – Bentley

The freshman from Shorewood, Minn. had eight goals in January, including a hat trick at Holy Cross and a pair of two goal games against Mercyhurst. Peterson leads the team with 12 goals and has 19 points overall.
Other Rookies Nominated: Tom Mele (AIC), Vincent Scarcella (Canisius), Joe Brock (Holy Cross), Steve Cameron (Mercyhurst), Andrew Favot (RIT), Reade Wolansky (Sacred Heart)

In the Hunt

Last Saturday night was gut-check time for Canisius. The Golden Griffins had played well in January but had hit a bit of a skid, losing three games in a row and finding themselves in ninth place. On Friday, Canisius had lost just its second home game of the year, allowing five goals in the second period en route to 7-3 setback to Sacred Heart. Goaltender Andrew Loewen, a big part of the Griffs’ recent success, was pulled after the seventh goal.

Loewen was injured in the first period of Saturday’s rematch with Sacred Heart, who led 1-0 after one.

But thanks to two freshman, goaltender Taylor Anderson and forward Cory Conacher, Canisius was about to stage a comeback, tying the game in the second period on Conacher’s first goal, then knotting the score again in the third on Conacher’s second tally. Anderson took over from there, making 13 saves in the third period and the Griffs got the game winner from Spencer Churchill with 4:14 to play and an empty-net goal from Jason Weeks to earn a 4-2 win, the first time in over a year that Canisius has won a game after trailing in the third period.

The split moved Canisius from ninth into a tie for sixth place.

“The first night we just played poorly,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “We just chalked that one up to ‘Hey, we stank’. The whole team had a rough night. It wasn’t all on Andrew (Loewen). He’s a part of the team and the entire team shared in what happened.

“Saturday was a great game. We had both teams playing hard. It was even all the way. We won it on a huge penalty kill late in the game. (Spencer) Churchill came out of the box and scored a big goal.”

Conacher, who missed the first half of the season with an injury, has 11 points in 10 games.

“He’s been terrific with the puck,” said Smith. “He’s the youngest guy in college hockey. The team is feeding off his energy and enthusiasm.”

Also playing a key role is another 18 year old, local product Vincent Scarcella, who is second on the team in points with 21.

“When they came in, we said to them, ‘Just play as much as you can handle’,” said Smith. “The original plan was to bring them along slowly, but they’ve stepped in and understood what they can do to help the team.”

In the bottled-up Atlantic Hockey standings, Canisius finds itself five points out of a home-ice spot with eight games left. But Smith says he can’t afford to think that far ahead.

“All we’re looking at right now is the first period (on Saturday)”, he said. “We can’t get home ice this weekend. It’s going to come down to who’s going to be hot at the end.”

Around the League

Air Force: The Falcons broke out of a scoring slump last weekend with a three point weekend against Bentley. Air Force had scored three goals in its three games prior to last weekend, but scored seven times in a 4-4 tie and a 3-1 win.

AIC: Rochester native Dan Ramerez shined in his homecoming as the freshman made a career-high 43 saves in a 3-1 win over RIT. The Tigers outshot the Yellow Jackets 44-18 in the game.

Skills Challenge: Four players from the league have been nominated for the 2008 Frozen Four Skills Challenge to be held on April 11 at the Pepsi Center in Denver (the off-day between the national semifinals and finals). Luke Flicek (Army), Dave Kasch (Canisius), Dale Reinhardt (Holy Cross) and Eric Ehn (Air Force) have been nominated.