Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Mercyhurst

The third entry on this year's "Know Your Enemy" series is the first one that is new to KYE, although not too long ago they were a regular opponent on the RPI schedule. Back when they were one of the top teams in what was then known as the MAAC, Mercyhurst made regular trips to Troy, and frequently gave the hosts all they could ask for, occasionally escaping with victories, too. This year, they come for a full weekend series for the first time.

Nickname: Lakers
Location: Erie, PA
Founded: 1926
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2005
Last Frozen Four: 1995 (Division II)
Coach: Rick Gotkin (25th year)
2011-12 Record: 20-16-4 (15-8-4 Atlantic Hockey, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: November 25, 2000 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 30, 2004 (Troy, NY)
Last MU win: November 28, 2008 (Troy, NY)

2012-13 games: November 16-17, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Paul Chiasson, sr.; D Nick Jones, jr.; F Daniel O'Donoghue, jr.; G Jordan Tibbett, jr.; F Daniel Bahntge, so.; F Nardo Nagtzaam, so.; F Chris Bodo, so.; D Grant Gettinger, so.; F Ryan Misiak, so.; D Tyler Shiplo, so.; F Kyle Cook, fr.; F Alec Shields, f.; D Justin Stevens, fr.

Interesting little factoid - in the growing NCAA/CHL talent war, Mercyhurst's home of Erie could be considered ground zero: it is the only municipality in North America hosting both a Division I hockey program and a major junior team, the OHL's Erie Otters. Sadly, the Otters outdraw the Lakers significantly, with the OHL side drawing around 3,000 fans per game, while Mercyhurst draws a little under 1,000 a game.

Hockey at Mercyhurst isn't nearly as old as it is at most of Division I's hockey playing institutions, but it can at least make a claim on being the oldest still-playing program in the state of Pennsylvania, which adds its third Division I program this year with Penn State. The first season in Erie took place in 1987-88. Under coach Fred Lane, the Lakers got off to a good start, going 16-7 in their first season in Division III.

The Lakers hired then-RPI assistant coach Rick Gotkin in 1988 to be their head coach, and he has been in Erie ever since - now there for a full quarter-century. With 434 career wins, Gotkin is among the top coaches in that category in college hockey history, but only 204 of them have come in Division I, ranking him 76th all time.

Gotkin's put the Lakers on top in short order. After a tough first season, Mercyhurst went 18-8-4 in 1990, and a year later took part in the Division III national tournament, just four seasons into their existence as a program.

With the Division II championship restarting in 1993, the Lakers moved up to their school-wide classification and immediately became one of the contenders for the re-established crown. Mercyhurst got the opportunity to play for the national championship in that season, but fell 10-6 and 5-0 in a best-of-three series to Bemidji State.

Two seasons on, the Lakers put together an even better showing, amassing a 23-1-1 regular season record (with no losses at all after early December) on their way to their second national championship showing, but again they were bested by Bemidji State as the Beavers - in the midst of a run of four titles in five years - swept the series 6-2 and 5-4.

Mercyhurst remained one of the strongest teams in Division II through the end of its most recent run with a national championship in 1999, putting together four straight seasons with less than 10 losses. That strength served them well when they moved up to Division I with several other soon-to-be championship-less programs, joining the MAAC in its second season in 1999 and continuing to put together solid outings, eventually making it 12 in a row from 1995 to 2006.

In just their second season in the league - their first as a full D-I program and the first in which the MAAC had an autobid to the NCAA tournament - the Lakers won the league title with a 6-5 win over Quinnipiac in the MAAC championship game, giving Mercyhurst the right to play in the national championship as the first representative from the upstart league. The feat made Gotkin the first (and still the only) coach in NCAA history to take a team to the national tournament at all three NCAA classifications, a feat he managed in just 11 seasons. That year, the Lakers held their own in the NCAAs, falling 4-3 to a Michigan team that would reach the Frozen Four.

Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac were the early beasts of the MAAC, later Atlantic Hockey, facing off against each other in the championship from 2001 to 2003, and also in 2005. The Lakers came out on top on each occasion with the exception of a 6-4 loss in 2002. In 2003, the Lakers were trounced 9-2 by Minnesota (who were on their way to a second straight national championship) in the NCAA tournament, and in 2005 fell 5-4 to Boston College.

The 2006 arrival of RIT and Air Force to Atlantic Hockey ended the Lakers reign atop the league, coinciding with the roughest stretch of Gotkin's career in Erie. Mercyhurst won just 9 games in 2007, reaching 20 losses and failing to notch 10 wins for the first time in school history. This was the first of four losing seasons in five years for Mercyhurst between 2007 and 2011.

Last year, the Lakers rebounded to post their seventh 20-win season since moving to Division I, accomplishing the feat with a rather young team. They reached the Atlantic Hockey semifinal, but ran into a tough Air Force team that also had ended their NCAA dreams in 2008 and 2009.

This past January, the school underwent a name change, going from Mercyhurst College to Mercyhurst University.

Notably, Mercyhurst is the only school sponsoring both men's and women's hockey at which the women's team outdraws the men. While the men have been among the more successful programs in Atlantic Hockey, the women are typically one of the best teams in the nation, lacking only a national championship to their pedigree.

Like last week's team, the Lakers had a pair of freshmen leading the team in scoring in Bahntge and Nagtzaam. Bodo tied for third with Chiasson, making it three frosh in the top four. In fact, pretty much all of the skaters that made Mercyhurst successful last season will return for this campaign, and while they still qualify as a young team, they have the advantage of having already been successful together, and that could again help them be a legitimate challenger to the RIT/Air Force dominance of their league.

The major hangup for the 'Hurst is likely in net with the graduation of their goaltender, Max Strang, who put up some very good numbers as one of the best goaltenders in Atlantic Hockey. Junior-to-be Jordan Tibbett, however, put up almost as good figures in much more limited action. If he can pick up where Strang left off, the Lakers will be a very formidable team in their league.

Outside of their league, however, is a different story. Like most Atlantic Hockey teams, the Lakers have never had a winning non-conference record in Division I, and the Engineers should be the favorites in these games, especially as the home team, unless they are limping into the middle of November with only a couple of wins. RPI saw their 6-game winning streak against Atlantic Hockey teams snapped last year against Army at the UConn tournament, but they haven't lost at home to an AHA team since falling 2-1 to Army in the 2009-10 season, which at the time was their third home loss in two seasons to the AHA.

The Engineers and Lakers played a yearly game from the 2000-01 season through 2005. They also posted two wins over the home team in the RPI Tournament, becoming the first MAAC/AHA team to beat RPI during the 2003 edition, and winning the 2008 version by beating Princeton in the final - so Rick Gotkin certainly has fond memories of his last business trip to Troy.

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