ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Mercyhurst has guaranteed themselves of at least the Atlantic Hockey Conference regular season co-champions title for 2017-18.
This, thanks to a 4-3 win at RIT after a wild and controversial final seven minutes of the game. However, even though they could be named co-champions with Canisius, they have not clinched the number one seed for the playoffs.
Canisius also won, beating crosstown rivals, Niagara, 2-1. This leaves them two points behind Mercyhurst with the final games Saturday night. Canisius holds the tiebreaker which will only be used to determine seedings.
“If you would have asked me if we could be regular season champs right before Christmas, I probably would have said, ‘I don’t think so,'” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “At one point, we were in ninth place. It feels great. I’m just happy for our guys, who turned the corner in so many ways.”
Meanwhile, the scramble continues throughout the standings, as every team claws for a better position. And RIT is right smack in the middle of that dog-eat-dog pack.
Currently, they sit alone in sixth place, one point and one spot out of a first round bye position.
The best RIT can do is tie Air Force for fourth place, but Air Force, who is two points ahead, holds the tiebreaker. Therefore, RIT’s only hope to get a bye is to gain a point on Army West Point (who plays Sacred Heart), since RIT holds that tiebreaker.
At worst, RIT will be home if they have to play in the first round. That’s because they can’t finish any lower than seventh as the Tigers are one point ahead of Robert Morris and three points ahead of American International. RIT holds the tiebreaker in that scenario.
There could be a three-way tie between Army, RIT, and Robert Morris which complicates things even further.
“It’s good for our league,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said about the standings. “I’ve never been in a league where 10 points or five wins separates not first or second or third, but first through 11th. I’m sure there’s going to be multiple tiebreakers in the end. It will be interesting going into (Saturday) night.”
What was interesting in Friday’sgame were those aforementioned final seven minutes.
With the score tied 2-2, Erik Brown, perhaps the hottest player in college hockey, scored his 26th goal of the season, and ninth in the last four games, on a yeoman effort.
He forced his way past a defender draped all over him to go in alone for the score at 13:26.
The lead didn’t last long as the Lakers came right back 32 seconds later. Joseph Duszak picked up a rebound on the side of the net, went around the cage, and finished off the wraparound.
Just 36 seconds later, Mercyhurst was in the lead. Jack Riley took advantage of loose coverage enabling him to skate in front of the net before putting the puck in.
The final minutes saw tremendous pressure applied by RIT. With 20.9 seconds left and their goalie pulled, RIT appeared to tie it back up when Gabe Valenzuela’s shot from the right point sailed in.
However, upon video review, it was determined that Brown interfered with the goalie by accidentally striking the glove hand, negating RIT’s last chance.
“He [the ref] said that #16 hit the goalie’s hand out of the way,” Wilson said. “I just saw it from up above and that’s not the case at all.”
Gotkin said, “I think it’s the first time in five years we had a goal reversed in our favor. We felt pretty strongly there was some goalie interference. I think the quick review probably beared that out.”
Both teams killed off two extensive five-on-three power plays in the second period. In the third period, Mercyhurst smacked the goal post twice before those final seven minutes.
Brandon Wildung got the win with 35 saves as RIT outshot the Lakers, 38-22.
I thought it was a great test for our guys,” Gotkin said. “It’s a quality win for us.”
The two teams face each other again in the final game of the season. A game which will determine playoff seedings and perhaps, an outright title for Mercyhurst.