By: Jay Ashdown
One year after a heartbreaking loss to AIC in the championship game, the Griffs were hoping for a revenge tour of the ages to take home their second-ever Atlantic Hockey title.
The Mercyhurst Lakers had other plans.
Mercyhurst came to HarborCenter this past weekend and showed Canisius why they have the best record in the conference since January 28. The Lakers used their stifling defense and their stellar goaltender to slowly bleed out Canisius, and their suffocating method worked to perfection as the team won games one and two, by scores of 2–1 and 3–1 respectively.
It’s a disappointing end for the Griffs as the team finished second in the Atlantic Hockey regular season standings, a spot they were projected to finish in at the beginning of the season in the coaches poll. All season long the Griffs played a very bend-but-don’t-break style of hockey, and it was effective enough to take home the necessary points to get them a bye and a top-two seed.
The problem is that they received perhaps the worst matchup possible for them, as Mercyhurst executes the same style of hockey; except that the Lakers came in as one of the hottest teams in college hockey, and they executed their game plan even better than Canisius did.
The Lakers really showed the college hockey world what they could do in game one, as they found a way to win their third-straight game by a score of 2–1. While their game-winning goal came at the hands of a terrible goaltender interference call, they found the back of the net when they got a chance, and they shut Canisius down outside of a one-point shot from Cory Thomas getting through on a deflection to give the Griffs their lone goal.
Game two was much of the same as Mercyhurst found the back of the net early on a shot that beat Barczewski but hit the post square. As the puck laid loose in the crease, Rylee St. Onge picked it up and stashed it home to give the Lakers the lead.
From there, it was much of the same from Mercyhurst as they shut down Canisius the rest of the game, aside from one defensive breakdown that saw Cooper Haar find Ryan Miotto on a cross-crease pass to tie the game for the Griffs.
Early in the third period with the game tied, the Lakers secured the game-winning goal when a Canisius turnover right in front of their net allowed Jonathan Bendorf to roof a shot past Barczewski. St. Onge put game two and the series on ice when he fired home his second of the night into an empty net from center ice to make it 3–1.
The loss stung for a lot of players, and it’s definitely an incredibly saddening end to the season for the team, as well as the careers of many Griffs who are graduating this season.
"It's tough anytime a season ends,” said head coach Trevor Large after the game two loss. “It's final. It's abrupt. Both games were very similar; two good hockey games with two elite goalies going toe to toe. Sometimes the hockey gods are cruel. It was a good hockey game by both teams. Congrats to Mercyhurst. They're playing extremely well right now. Their goalie played unbelievable. It's tough to get pucks by him and he played back-to-back games only giving up one goal each night, it's tough to win.”
For Mercyhurst, they advance to the semifinals to take on No. 1–seeded AIC Yellow Jackets. The winner of that matchup will play the winner of RIT vs. Air Force the following night in the championship game. For AIC, they’ve won their fourth-straight regular season AHA title, and they’ve currently won three straight AHA titles. Mercyhurst is looking for their first AHA title since 2005, when they beat Quinnipiac while the Bobcats were still in the conference. Air Force is looking for their eighth AHA title — the last time they won was 2018 —, and RIT is looking for their 4th AHA title, their last one coming in 2016.