ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It easy to say that the Mercyhurst Lakers exceeded expectations this season, but not those of Lakers coach Rick Gotkin.
“The coaches picked us to finish eighth, and the media picked us seventh,” said Gotkin. “And maybe deservedly so, but we felt like we had a good team, a mature team, and a lot of potential.”
The Lakers (18-11-4) were the best team in Atlantic Hockey in the second half of the season, culminating in the 2017-18 regular season title after a 4-3 win over Rochester Institute of Technology.
The win completed a road sweep of the Tigers (14-17-2), who settled for a sixth-place finish.
“This was a tough weekend,” said Gotkin. “We earned every inch of ice, earned two quality wins.”
Mercyhurst erased deficits of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, getting the game-winner from Joe Duszak with 13:11 left in the third period.
Erik Brown had a pair of goals for RIT, his 27th and 28th of the season, setting a school record for most goals in a season. Brown scored the opening goal of the game at 9:50 while supporting himself on one leg after taking a hard shot from the point.
However, the Lakers’ Michael Verboom countered near the end of the period, one of three Mercyhurst goals that came on odd-man rushes.
The Tigers led 3-2 after two periods, but, as it had done the night before, Mercyhurst was able to tie and then take the lead in the third period.
Bryan Sienerth converted on a power play to tie the game just 48 seconds into the final stanza, and the Duszak finished off the scoring with his eighth of the season.
“After two periods, it felt to me like RIT was a little more desperate,” said Gotkin. “So the challenge was to end the regular season the way we wanted to, to see if we can match or exceed their desperation. We just found a way to win.”
Mercyhurst goaltender Brandon Wildung made 27 saves for his 18th win of the season, including a pair of stops in a wild final minute, when RIT, already on a power play, pulled goalie Logan Drackett (20 saves) for a six-on-four situation.
“At that point, there was not a lot going through my head,” said Wildung. “(I was) just in the moment, trying to see the puck, to be as big as I can and get to the right spot. The guys played great in front of me, blocking shots and not letting RIT set up.”
The win was the fourth in a row for the Lakers, who opened the season 6-9-2 but have been 12-2-2 since the calendar turned to 2018.
“We felt like we had a good team,” said Gotkin. “From a coaching standpoint, we were asking ourselves, ‘Why can’t we win two in a row’? And then we put two wins together, and then it was three, and then four, and then the confidence takes over.”
RIT closed its season with thee straight losses. The Tigers will host Sacred Heart next weekend in a best-of-three first round series.
It was Mercyhurt’s second-ever regular season title. The Lakers have finished in the top half of the standings 11 times in 14 years, but only finished first once before, in 2014. As the number one seed, Mercyhurst has earned a first-round playoff bye and will host the lowest remaining seed in two weeks.
Gotkin said that his team will not be taking any opponent lightly.
“We’re going to go back and erase the standings board,” said Gotkin. “We’re all starting fresh.”