At this time last year, Mercyhurst wasn’t really interested in reading a standings bulletin board.
The Lakers were on track to become the first Atlantic Hockey team to be locked to a finishing position, a questionable award for the eleventh team. They were a young and inexperienced team, but even the most optimistic and cheerful person in the dressing room could not deny that table.
So they got rid of it and played the stretch run with the intention of improving a post-season and off-season build.
They may have a different take on this season. Fresh off a six-point sweep of Air Force last weekend, the Lakers are right back where everyone expects them, in fourth place with a position to challenge for the leagues’ best slots.
Last year, we had five seniors, two of them goalkeepers, with three forwards, said Lakers coach Rick Gotkin. This year we have two seniors. One is legitimate senior in (defender) Quinn Wichers, but the other is Hank Johnson, who is in his fifth year of college hockey and his freshman year with Mercyhurst. What we have is a larger junior class that has played a lot of hockey over the years, and we have a large second class that has a lot of experience.
Those sophomores played a huge role in last weekend’s success. The class collected 16 points over two nights in the teams with an 11-5 aggregate victory over the Falcons with five goals split between Jonathan Bendorf, Gueorgui Feduolov, Paul Maust and Dante Spagnuolo. Feduolov added four assists for a five-point weekend, and both Joseph Maziarz and Alaska Anchorage transfer Rylee St. Onge added two, the latter coming in his Lakers debut.
It supported a youth movement anchored by freshman Austin Heidemann’s hat-trick in the second game and propelled the Lakers to fourth place in the conference with 0.611 points. It improved the team beyond .500 in league games to 3-2-1 with an extra shootout victory point, basically putting it in third place on points in the helter-go-kart season.
That’s more in line with the high hopes of the 2014 and 2018 regular season championships, but it’s a new recipe built from a new list of ingredients. A youth movement is rapidly maturing, and the addition of the right transfers is an intriguing option for a sleep team in the second half of the year.
Hank Johnson scored a goals this week, averaging 2.78 against his Bemidji State graduation season average, and freshman Kyle McClellan posted 28 saves for his first win last weekend. Rylee St. Onge was one of three players, along with Wyatt Head and Devon Mussio, added from the Anchorage program mid-year, and Heidemann’s hat-trick was the first such achievement since the 2018/19 season.
We were better than our record last year, Gotkin said. We just couldn’t find a way to win (on) most nights. There were many nights when we thought we were good enough to get a tie or steal one, and we just couldn’t do that that night. And there are reasons that graduation took its toll and the list goes on, but we tried to go out and recruit more crimes.
Anchorage was in that difficult situation and I hope they find a way to keep that program going. All three of those guys were in the transfer portal and we felt like we needed some help. We had some injuries and at the end of the day three very good kids joined. Rylee St. Onge had 17 points as a freshman last year, and he played for the first time this weekend. He is a man who impresses.
A big win
Army West Points 5-3 victory over American International was more than just the first loss for the previously unbeaten team from first place.
It was head coach Brian Rileys ‘201st win at the academy and his first since reaching No. 200 in the teams’ 2-0 win over Bentley on December 5.
It was also the 1,000th victory for the Riley family at the academy.
It’s not so much the 1,000 wins as it is 70 years, said Brian Riley. There have been so many people over the years who are coaches, players, staffers and even the doctors. It was an opportunity to meet some great people, and I know I am so grateful for the opportunity to coach here at West Point.
Nothing fits Riley’s single-family tradition at West Point. Jack, the patriarch, was named head coach in 1950 and spent the next 36 years successfully navigating the program in the college’s modern hockey sphere. He won over 570 games and led the Forgotten Miracle gold medal team of the United States national program at the 1960 Olympics. He went on to win 113 games in his first 10 years and remained competitive through the end of his career, during which time he claimed two Spenser Penrose Awards as the best Division I head coach. The Cadets finished above .500 in each of his last seven years, and he won 28 games in 1983-84 before stepping down after a season of 18 wins in 1985-86.
His eldest son Rob took over and remained a steady hand through the odd division of hockey in the 1990s, but later transitioned to a full turn of the century Division I schedule. Leger played in the inaugural seasons of both College Hockey America and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference before Atlantic Hockey split from the latter’s sponsorship.
Rob left West Point after the Atlantic Hockey Tournament in 2004, but left with two seasons of 20 wins and a 13-3-2 record against Canada’s Royal Military College. His successor, Brian, kept a Riley in the lead coach role at West Point continuously, and his three consecutive Atlantic Hockey Coach of the Year Awards included a regular season championship in 2008 before the Black Knights finished three of the last four seasons with a the winning a regular and a top four competition.
When my brother asked me to coach with him, I was so excited that Riley laughed. I had to coach with my best friend, and people like to say I could be Robs assistant for the rest of my career. He decided to take an opportunity and return to Boston, and I was grateful that the academy chose to stay with me and let me coach this team.
You can go from Independent to ECAC back to Independent to the MAAC and now Atlantic Hockey, Riley laughed, but there are so many different people who make this such a great place again.
The three Rileys hold more than 84 percent of all wins in the Army West Points program, but their collective achievement is more impressive in light of the changing tides in college hockey. A third of the skaters in college hockey come from outside the United States, but West Point and its Air Force counterpart are limited by the geographic requirements of the service academy. That’s a far cry from the historic teams built by Canadian skaters or the more international flavors found in college hockey today.
When I told my dad I wanted to coach hockey, he gave me some advice, Riley said. I was probably ready to get a notepad and paper to take notes on a power play or some sort of penalty kill, but he told me that’s the way you care about your players as people are the most important piece about coaching. We’ve always had extraordinary young men playing hockey at West Point, and it’s really a family here.
Just hit play
Given the constant fluency and general changes affecting college hockey every week, I thought it was worth going through the current state of Atlantic Hockey programs. It’s worth noting that these are current as of Tuesday evening press time and are subject to change:
AIC fell in first place this weekend with Robert Morris after losing to Army West Point, but remained at number 20 in the national poll. The Yellow Jackets remain an active schedule and have scheduled a game for Long Island University on Wednesday after their series against Bentley was formally postponed. The teams previously met on January 2 with a 2-1 decision for AIC.
Air Force formally interrupted his schedule on Tuesday and postponed the next two series against Army West Point and LIU. The Falcons will be off for at least 14 days with their next scheduled matches on January 30 and 31 in Bentley, but their schedule is arguably the most complicated to navigate due to the travel component. Half of their remaining scheduled games are underway with two non-conference games against LIU for February.
Army West Point is active and ranks eighth with a percentage of 0.389 points after beating AIC last weekend. The Black Knights are expected to play against LIU this weekend after their series against Air Force was postponed with an expected home-and-home next week against Holy Cross scheduled for next Thursday and Saturday. Their .389 win percentage has them on the inside of the home ice, and they’ll likely earn a run on a first round bye as soon as the Crusaders and Sacred Heart return to the ice.
Bentley remains paused after its program ceases on January 5. The Falcons postponed their next three games this week and not scheduled for their next game until a Jan. 26 home game against Holy Cross. They have arguably the most advantageous climb uphill when they return, as their five points in six games essentially give them games in hand over almost any team in the top four.
Canisius interrupted the program on January 8 and has been postponed until this weekend. The next scheduled games are next Tuesday against RIT, but the Golden Griffins are still in third place with a .750 win percentage over their four games.
Holy Cross last played on December 22 and 23 in two non-conference games against Quinnipiac before the Crusaders ended their program on December 28. January 21 and 23 meeting against Army West Point.
Mercyhurst is active and will play home-and-home against RIT this weekend.
Robert Morris is active and ranked No. 17 in the nation, but is out until Tuesday’s next game at Mercyhurst. The Colonials are level with AIC for the first time, but have more general points, indicative of the strong RMU roster and national caliber cap.
Sacred Heart is active but has postponed the next four games in light of positive testing and subsequent contact tracking. The next scheduled game for the Pioneers is on January 26 against AIC.
And of course that should be mentioned LIU is active but has not played against AIC since the 2 January meeting. The Sharks will play a second game against the Yellow Jackets on Wednesday, but have no game scheduled until January 23 and 24 against Canisius.
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