This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Experience playing major role for Mercyhurst during 2020-21 season

Mercyhurst senior captain Quinn Wichers has registered two assists in 10 games so far for the Lakers (photo: Ed Mailliard).

At this time last year, Mercyhurst wasn’t exactly interested in reading a standings corkboard.

The Lakers were on their way to becoming the first Atlantic Hockey team locked into a final position, a dubious distinction for the 11th-place team. They were a young and inexperienced team, but not even the most optimistic and cheery person in the locker room could deny that table.

So they got rid of it and played the stretch run with the intention of improving a build into the postseason and offseason.

They might have a different outlook on this season. Fresh off of a six-point sweep of Air Force last weekend, the Lakers are right back where everyone expects them, in fourth place with a position to challenge for the league’s top slots.

“Last year we had five seniors, two of which were goaltenders, with three forwards,” Lakers coach Rick Gotkin said. “This year, we have two seniors. One is a legitimate senior in (defenseman) Quinn Wichers, but the other is Hank Johnson, who is in his fifth year of college hockey and his first year at Mercyhurst. What we have is a bigger junior class that has played a lot of hockey over the years, and we have a big sophomore class that got lots of experience.”

Those sophomores played an enormous role in last weekend’s success. The class amassed 16 points over two nights in the team’s 11-5 aggregate win over the Falcons with five goals spread across Jonathan Bendorf, Gueorgui Feduolov, Paul Maust and Dante Spagnuolo. Feduolov added four assists for a five-point weekend, and both Joseph Maziarz and Alaska Anchorage transfer Rylee St. Onge added two, the latter coming in his Lakers debut.

It buoyed a youth movement anchored by freshman Austin Heidemann’s hat trick in the second game and surged the Lakers into fourth place in the conference with a .611 points percentage. It further improved the team over .500 in league play to 3-2-1 with an additional shootout victory point, essentially putting it into third place on points in the helter-skelter season.

That’s more in line with the elevated expectations from the 2014 and 2018 regular-season championships, but it’s a new recipe built from a new list of ingredients. A youth movement is maturing rapidly, and the addition of the right transfers are boiling an intriguing option for a sleeper team in the second half of the year.

Hank Johnson recorded a goalie point this week and holds a 2.78 goals-against average in his graduate transfer season from Bemidji State, and freshman Kyle McClellan posted 28 saves for his first win last weekend. Rylee St. Onge was one of three players, along with Wyatt Head and Devon Mussio, added from the Anchorage program at the midyear, and Heidemann’s hat trick was the first such accomplishment since the 2018-19 season.

“We were better than our record last year,” Gotkin said. “We just couldn’t find a way to win (on) most nights. There were a lot of nights where we thought we were good enough to get a tie or steal one, and we just couldn’t do it on that night. And there are reasons why, that graduation took its toll and the list goes on and on, but we tried to go out and recruit some more offense.

“Anchorage was in that tough situation, and I hope they find a way to keep that program going. All three of those guys were in the transfer portal, and we felt like we needed some help. We had some injuries, and at the end of the day, we added three really good kids. Rylee St. Onge had 17 points last year as a freshman, and he played for the first time this weekend. He’s a guy that makes an impact.”

One grand victory

Army West Point’s 5-3 win over American International was more than just the first defeat for the league’s previously-undefeated, first place team.

It was head coach Brian Riley’s 201st career win at the academy and his first since he recorded No. 200 in the team’s 2-0 win over Bentley on December 5.

It was also the 1,000th win for the Riley family at the academy.

“It’s not so much the 1,000 wins as it is 70 years,” Brian Riley said. “There are just so many people over the years that are coaches, players, staff, even the doctors. It’s been an opportunity to meet some wonderful people, and I know I’m so grateful for the opportunity to coach here at West Point.”

Nothing matches the Riley single-family tradition at West Point. Jack, the patriarch, was named head coach in 1950 and spent the next 36 years successfully navigating the program into the modern college hockey atmosphere. He won more than 570 games and led the “Forgotten Miracle” gold medal team of the United States national program at the 1960 Olympics. He further won 113 games in his first 10 years and remained competitive through the end of his career, during which he claimed two Spenser Penrose Awards as the best Division I head coach. The Cadets finished above .500 in each of his last seven years, and he won 28 games in 1983-1984 before stepping aside after an 18-win season in 1985-1986.

His older son Rob took the reins and remained a steady hand through hockey’s strange division split in the 1990s but later moved into a full Division I schedule before the turn of the century. Army played in the inaugural seasons of both College Hockey America and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference before Atlantic Hockey split from the latter’s sponsorship.

Rob left West Point after the 2004 Atlantic Hockey Tournament but departed with two 20-win seasons and a 13-3-2 record against Canada’s Royal Military College. His successor, Brian, ensured a Riley remained continuously in the head coaching role at West Point, and his three consecutive Atlantic Hockey Coach of the Year Awards includes a regular season championship in 2008 before the Black Knights finished three of the last four seasons with a winning regular and a top four league finish.

“When my brother asked me to coach with him, I was so excited,” Riley laughed. “I got to coach with my best friend, and people like to say that I could’ve been Rob’s assistant for the rest of my career. He decided to pursue an opportunity and return to Boston, and I was grateful that the academy chose to stick with me and let me coach this team.

“You can go from Independent to ECAC back to Independent to the MAAC and now Atlantic Hockey,” Riley laughed, “but there are, again, so many different people that make this such a great place.”

The three Rileys own more than 84 percent of all wins by Army West Point’s program, but their collective achievement is more impressive in light of the changing tides in college hockey. A full third of skaters in college hockey are from outside the United States, but West Point and its Air Force counterpart are restricted by the geographic requirements of the service academy fold. That’s a far cry from the historic teams built by Canadian skaters or the more international flavors found throughout college hockey today.

“When I told my dad I wanted to coach hockey, he gave me one piece of advice,” Riley said. “I probably was ready to get a pad and paper to start taking notes about a power play or type of penalty kill, but he told me the way you care about your players as people is the most important piece about being a coach. We have always had extraordinary young men who play hockey at West Point, and it really is a family here.”

Just push play

Given the constant fluidity and overall changes impacted college hockey every week, I figured it was worth running through the current state of Atlantic Hockey programs. It’s worth noting that these are current as of press time on Tuesday evening and are subject to changes:

AIC fell into a first place tie with Robert Morris this weekend after its loss to Army West Point but remained ranked at No. 20 in the national poll. The Yellow Jackets remain an active program and scheduled Long Island University for a game on Wednesday after their series against Bentley was formally postponed. The teams previously met on January 2 with a 2-1 decision going to AIC.

Air Force formally paused its program on Tuesday and postponed its next two series against Army West Point and LIU. The Falcons will be off for at least 14 days with their next scheduled games on January 30 and 31 at Bentley, but their schedule is arguably the most complicated to navigate because of the travel component. Half of their remaining games scheduled are on the road with two non-conference games against LIU slotted for February.

Army West Point is active and is in eighth place with a .389 points percentage after beating AIC this past weekend. The Black Knights are expected to play LIU this weekend after their series against Air Force was postponed with an expected home-and-home next week against Holy Cross slated for next Thursday and Saturday. Their .389 winning percentage has them on the inside of home ice, and they likely will earn a run at a first round bye once the Crusaders and Sacred Heart return to the ice.

Bentley remains paused after halting its program on January 5. The Falcons postponed their next three games this week and aren’t scheduled for their next game until a January 26 home game against Holy Cross. They have arguably the most advantageous uphill climb when they return because their five points in six games essentially grant them games in hand over almost every team in the top four.

Canisius paused its program on January 8 and is postponed through this weekend. The next scheduled games is next Tuesday against RIT, but the Golden Griffins are still in third place with a .750 winning percentage through their four games.

Holy Cross last played on December 22 and 23 in two non-conference games against Quinnipiac before the Crusaders paused their program on December 28. They were slated to return to the ice this weekend against Sacred Heart, but a postponement by the Pioneers pushed them back to a January 21 and 23 meeting against Army West Point.

Mercyhurst is active and is scheduled to play a home-and-home this weekend against RIT.

Robert Morris is active and ranked No. 17 in the nation but is off until next Tuesday’s game at Mercyhurst. The Colonials are tied for first with AIC but have more overall points, an indication of the powerful RMU roster and its national caliber ceiling.

Sacred Heart is active but postponed its next four games in light of positive tests and subsequent contact tracing. The next scheduled game for the Pioneers is on January 26 against AIC.

And, of course, it bears mentioning that LIU is active but hasn’t played since its January 2 meeting against AIC. The Sharks will play a second game against the Yellow Jackets on Wednesday but don’t have a game scheduled after that until January 23-24 against Canisius.