Cinderella had more life than most expected, but, in the end, top-seeded Boston College ended the fantasy.
Mercyhurst, which only qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning its conference tournament, gave the Eagles the scare of their collective ice, staying with the Eagles in aspect of the game but finally succumbing, 5-4, in the opening game of the NCAA East Regional tournament at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
The Lakers scored in the opening minute of play, held leads of 1-0 and 2-1, and created more odd-man rushes against the highly touted Eagles defense that it has allowed in months. Still, the Eagles had just enough to escape, thanks particularly to the BC power play, which scored three times in 10 chances.
“History tells me that these are going to be difficult games, especially the first game,” said BC head coach Jerry York. “We never thought it would be a 5-0 or a 5-1 game. Mercyhurst, though, is a little better than they were on film.”
Despite the score, the game featured some top-of-the-line goaltending. Lakers starter Mike Ella finished the game with 52 saves, tying him for the seventh-most all-time in an NCAA tournament game and tied for third-most in a regulation contest.
Matching him on the other end was BC goaltender Cory Schneider, who was forced to make only 18 saves to earn the win but saw a plethora of grade-‘A’ chances, particularly in the final minute of the game when Mercyhurst pulled Ella for an extra attacker.
“I thought both goaltenders were just outstanding,” said York. “I’d argue that Cory’s game was a more difficult game to play. [Ella] saw a lot of shots at his end. But Cory had to save some breakaways and two-on-ones at his end.”
A major storyline in the game was penalties. A zealous Jon Campion from the WCHA whistled what amassed to 18 power plays, 11 for BC and seven for the Lakers. Both teams capitalized, BC burying three of it attempts and Mercyhurst knocking home two.
More importantly, though, the game lacked flow and neither team had much of a chance to establish their five-on-five plans.
“Penalties definitely affected our game,” said Mercyhurst senior winger David Wrigley. “BC has a real good power play and they have a better power play than we did tonight.”
The Lakers got things going early — very early. David Wrigley finished off a two-on-one with linemate Matt Warren just 27 seconds into the game, the third-fastest goal in NCAA regional history.
BC answered, though, when Pat Gannon fired home a perfect feed from Ned Havern exactly two minutes later to even the score at 1.
Anyone who thought Mercyhurst would wilt realized that wouldn’t happen when the Lakers scored on a five-on-three advantage at 7:53. Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year Ben Cottreau fired a quick shot from the slot past Schneider to give the Lakers back the advantage at 2-1.
BC responded with not one, but two power-play goals before the period’s end as Brian Boyle scored his 19th of the season at 12:18 and defenseman Greg Lauze scored with 35 seconds remaining to give BC a 3-2 lead through one.
In the second, Mercyhurst came out with steam and buried its second power-play goal of the period at 4:22 when T.J. Kemp scored while pinching from the left point.
BC regained the lead at 10:36 of the second when Ned Havern put away the rebound of a Lauze shot with the man-advantage. The Eagles then earned their first two-goal lead at 17:33 when Mike Brennan scored a highlight-reel goal, roofing the puck on the backhander as he cut across the crease.
Again, the Lakers could have faltered, but with 59 seconds remaining in the second Rick Hansen scored on just the third shot of the period for Mercyhurst to pull the Lakers within a goal at 5-4.
In the third period, BC had ample chances to put away the game. Brennan hit the post early before Ryan Murphy was stopped on a partial breakaway at 4:51 and Rooney was stonewalled by Ella on a partial breakaway at 6:45.
A strange turn of events occurred with 5:59 remaining in regulation, with Ella temporarily saving the day for the Lakers. After stopping an Andrew Alberts bid, Ella was moving gingerly. When the whistle blew, Ella called for Lakers trainer Mike Folger and, after a long time trying to work with his right leg on the ice, Ella was lifted and brought to the locker room.
“My quad started to cramp up, then my hamstring and quad started to cramp,” said Ella. “It was really hard to stand up.”
Andy Franck, who hadn’t played in more than a month after spending most of the season as the Lakers’ number-one goaltender, was called into action. After making one save on a Patrick Eaves blast on the power play, Franck was re-replaced by Ella, who miraculously returned from the locker room after Folger was able to massage away the cramps.
During Franck’s short 51 seconds in goal, Mercyhurst had its best chance to tie the game. As his penalty expired, T.J. Kemp took a home-run pass and walked in on a breakaway only to see Schneider make a game-saving stop.
Mercyhurst continued to press BC late, putting three quality shots on Schneider with Ella pulled for an extra attacker. The best of the bids was a Scott Champagne one-timer from the slot with 24 seconds remaining, but Schneider stood tall and carried his Eagles into Saturday’s regional final.
The win advances BC to the regional final for the third time in four years and the seventh time under York. BC is now 6-0 in first-round games with York at the helm.
More importantly for them, the Eagles got out of a game that was difficult and dangerous for a number-one seed.
“It’s hard to teach NCAA [tournament] play,” said York of his team, which at times looked nervous. “You’ve got to experience it. It’s a little bit different from playing a Tuesday night game in our league. For our young kids, it was the first time for them.”
For the Lakers, their Cinderella trip ended, though not without impressing critics of Mercyhurst’s league, Atlantic Hockey.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin. “I think it’s just a matter of time before an Atlantic Hockey team knocks off one of these top teams in a major tournament such as this. I think we’ll eventually take that next step.”