While it was a good opening weekend as a whole for Atlantic Hockey, which opened up exclusively in non-conference play, it was Mercyhurst’s dramatic comeback win over Arizona State which easily garnered the most attention.
The Sun Devils, one season removed from their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament and ranked No. 20 to start this season, held a 2-1 lead over the Lakers late in the third period.
It didn’t last.
Jonny Lazarus scored the game-tying goal with just 2:29 left in the third period, and Owen Norton finished off an odd-man rush with 18 seconds left to play in regulation to cap off an improbable season-opening victory for Mercyhurst.
For some teams, it might be the high point of the season. Long-time bench boss Rick Gotkin knows better than that, however.
“We’re keeping everything in perspective,” Gotkin, now in his 32nd season as Lakers head coach, told FloHockey on the phone on Wednesday night.
“It’s so early, and we have 11 freshmen and eight sophomores, three juniors and five seniors,” he said. “We only have eight upperclassmen, so we’re a really, really young team. But, I really liked our compete-level last weekend in Arizona. I thought our guys worked hard – working hard and competing are two different things – but our compete-level was high, and we certainly have some skill. We have a long way to go to get to where we need to be, but we have to just find a way to keep getting better. But it was a good experience for our guys to get on the road; we took everybody, and we played everybody but two guys, and I think it was a good team-building weekend.”
Mercyhurst dropped the second game of the weekend, also against Arizona State, 6-4, in Tempe on Sunday, but the momentum that comes from that successful of a trip as a whole should be easy to carry into their upcoming two-game set against St. Lawrence.
“On Sunday, we got into penalty trouble early and were just killing too many penalties,” Gotkin said. “I thought there were parts of our game on Sunday that were actually better than Saturday, but moving forward, we need to find a way to continue to get better, and that started at practice (Wednesday). We looked at video, and guys had a good half-hour in the weight room. With those 19 underclassmen, it’s getting those guys used to college hockey and getting them to keep improving.”
They’ll get the chance to do so at home, with both games against the Saints, another out-of-conference opponent to start the season, coming at Mercyhurst Ice Center.
“I think our guys are looking forward to that for sure,” Gotkin said. “The only tough thing is that we’re on fall break starting today, so all the students are gone and I don’t know if we’ll have very much of a crowd in there. But, we saw our group play on the road this past weekend and took the good and the bad from that. Now, we get a chance to see our guys play at home, and we’re real excited because we just had some nice renovations done to the rink. We’re looking forward to playing there, and I think our guys will be real excited to play.”
Although St. Lawrence has struggled mightily over the past two seasons – the ECAC stalwarts are a combined 14-56-4 since the start of the 2017-18 campaign – Gotkin knows his team can’t get too high off of one big win and overlook any opponent.
“I think they’re going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “Obviously, they had a tough last year, and we played them there and were able to beat them. But, they have a new coaching staff and I’m sure all the players are going to be very energized and want to prove to those coaches what they can do. They’re going to be probably like we were in Arizona in that first game, I think they’re going to come out guns blazing, and we’re going to have be ready to play. If we’re not, we’re going to get punched in the face without a doubt.”
Led by Mercyhurst, Atlantic Hockey teams combined to post a 6-3-1 this past Friday and Saturday, including wins by Air Force, Army, Holy Cross, Niagara, and RIT. That’s the kind of punch conference coaches were looking to deliver when speaking about how improved the league was from top to bottom at media day. So far, so good.
“I thought it was a really good first weekend for our conference,” Gotkin said. “Army won at home against Union, we won a game against a top-20 team in Arizona, there was a tie with Sacred Heart and UConn, a real close game with Robert Morris and Michigan Tech…it was a pretty good start for Atlantic Hockey. It’s just going to keep getting better.”
Mike Ashmore has 17 years of experience covering professional and college sports. You can follow him on all social media channels at @mashmore98.