Rick Gotkin has been behind the Mercyhurst bench for 32 seasons, but he’s never had one quite like this.
Just two years removed from an Atlantic Hockey regular-season title and a 21-12-4 record, the Lakers sit in last place at 5-20-1.
“We kind of saw it coming,” said Gotkin. “We’re a really young team. We’ve lost a lot of offense the last 2-3 years, but we’re a little surprised to only win five games.”
The departures of nine seniors plus junior and Hobey Baker finalist Joe Duszak, who signed a professional contract with Toronto at the end of last season, meant that 63 percent of Mercyhurst’s goal production in 2018-19 went out the door.
“We’ve got 11 freshman and 10 sophomores,” said Gotkin. “We’re a young, inexperienced team taking our lumps.
“With growth comes pain, and we’re experiencing some pain.”
There are just seven upperclassmen, including three goalies. Garrett Metcalf has seen the most action in net, posting an .898 save percentage and a 3.85 GAA.
A pair of sophomores are tied for points leadership, although leading goal scorer Steven Ipri (10 goals, 18 points) suffered a season-ending injury two weeks ago against Bentley.
When it rains, it pours.
That leaves sophomore Dalton Hunter (six goals, 18 points) and senior James Anderson (seven goals, 15 points) to pick up the slack.
Through it all, Gotkin says he likes his team’s attitude and the way they’ve handled adversity.
“The guys have stuck together,” he said. “We need to get better, no question. I think I can make a case that we maybe could have had four of five more wins.
“But our attitude has been great. It’s been upbeat and positive in practice and in games. There are real encouraging signs.”
That said, it’s been a new experience for Gotkin, whose teams have managed at least 15 wins in all but two seasons since Mercyhurst moved to Division I in 2000.
“It’s been really, really hard,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to be a good coach when you’re winning, a good player when you’re winning. When you’re going through something like this, you learn a lot about yourself and other people. You learn from adversary.
“I love our players. Love our coaches. It would have been easy to pack it in, but we haven’t.”
The Lakers, currently in last place in Atlantic Hockey, have eight games remaining in the regular season, and the playoffs will provide a fresh start.
“We erased the standings board a while ago,” said Gotkin. “The way we look at it, we have eight exhibition games and then the season starts.
“There’s going to be a year where the 10 or 11 seed wins it. We’re getting closer to that. Everything we’re doing now is preparing for the future.”
Where things stand
In years past, the Atlantic Hockey Standings have been tight from top to bottom, with playoff seedings not determined until the final weekend.
This season, American International and Sacred Heart are threatening to run away with things, with Army West Point also seeing some separation between itself and the rest of the field.
Last week,I looked at how the new tie breaking system, as well as games now being worth three points instead of two, has affected the standings (in short: not much).
The separation this season is simple to explain: while there’s still a great deal of parity in the league, there’s not as much as in the previous few seasons.
The distance separating first and fifth (the bye positions) is currently 14 points, while the distance between first and 11th is 36 points.
Normalizing that to a two-point per game system, the difference from first to fifth would be seven points, the same as last season and slightly more than two years ago.
But then things open up a bit, especially when looking at the very top and bottom teams. The bell curve flattens out considerably.
One reason? Sweeps are up. We have had 28 sweeps in conference play so far this season, up considerably from the past two seasons, when there were 23 at this point in 2018-19 and 20817-18.
With four weekends left in the regular season, Sacred Heart and AIC are already a win away from locking up a first-round bye.
The nominees for the Senior CLASS award have been announced, and five of the 20 are from Atlantic Hockey.
Forward Jonathan Desbiens (Bentley), defensemen Adam Brubacher (RIT) Noah Delmas (Niagara) and Alex Wilkinson (Army West Point) and goaltender Aidan Pelino (Bentley) are among 20 candidates for this year’s award, which is open to Division I seniors and recognizes excellence in the classroom, community and on the ice.
Ten finalists will be chosen by the end of the month, with the winner announced at the Frozen Four in Detroit.
Last year, Air Force’s Kyle Haak won the award. Previous winners include Air Force’s Jacques Lamoureux (2011) and Army West Point’s Cheyne Rocha (2013).
Falcon for a day
On February 17, Air Force will take on Colorado College in the only outdoor college hockey game to be played this season.
The game will be part of the NHL’s Stadium Series, with the main attractions a game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings, to be played at Falcon Stadium on the campus of the Air Force Academy.
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog got a window into cadet life thanks to Falcons caption Matt Pulver.
Must watch 🎥
— Air Force Hockey (@AF_HKY) February 4, 2020
At this time of year, it’s all about the standings and jockeying for position. Here’s some upcoming important matchups:
Sacred Heart at American International – This one takes place on Tuesday, February 11 with the second game scheduled for Wednesday, February 26. It does’t get much bigger than this: a battle between the two teams tied at the top of the standings. The Yellow Jackets have a game in hand on the Pioneers.
Army West Point at Bentley – This is also a single game on Friday, with Bentley hosting Arizona State on Saturday. The Falcons occupy the fifth and final bye position, ahead of Robert Morris and Air Force by a single point. Army West Point looks to stay within reach of the regular season title, currently trailing Sacred Heart and Sacred Heart by six points.
Air Force at Canisius – The Falcons, shorthanded due to injuries and suspensions, have lost four in a row and run the risk of falling farther back. The Golden Griffins are looking to move up, with six of Canisius’ final eight games against teams ahead of it in the standings, including this matchup.