(Photo: Mercyhurst Hockey)
Disclosure: I was given the (paid) opportunity to provide color commentary on the CHA Digital Network's online broadcast of the CHA Tournament, and served in that capacity for all five games.
The top-seeded Mercyhurst Lakers extended their winning season, defeating the Robert Morris Colonials in overtime to win the College Hockey America (CHA) championship. A tightly-contested battle ended in victory for the Lakers when junior forward Summer-Rae Dobson scored the title-winning goal just 4:19 into overtime.
It's all part of what's been an incredible season for Mercyhurst, who has gone 21-10-5 this season. They came into the CHA Tournament as the number one seed, which gave them a bye through the first round, which saw Syracuse sweep Lindenwood 4-0 and Penn State top RIT 4-1.
This set up Mercyhurst to face the Nittany Lions in the first semifinal. The Lakers wasted no time in Friday's game, as Sarah Nelles got them on the board just 2:23 in. Liliane Perreault added a goal later in the first period, before captain Alexa Vasko tallied on the power play midway through the game to make it 3-1.
Although Amy Dobson found the back of the net once for Penn State later in the middle frame, the Lakers did a good job of holding off the Nittany Lions' offense. Perreault added another goal in the third period, and the Lakers won 4-1 in spite of facing a strong netminder in Chantal Burke.
The victory sent the Lakers to Saturday's championship game, where they faced Robert Morris. The Colonials beat Syracuse in their semifinal and came into the CHA Tournament as the second seed with a record of 20-12-4.
With how close the two teams were in the regular season, it was clear that the championship game would be tight. Both netminders (Kennedy Blair for Mercyhurst, Raygan Kirk for Robert Morris) played strong games. Kirk's performance as a freshman was especially impressive.
Early in Saturday's contest, the Colonials found themselves in the lead. Michaela Boyle scored just 2:04 into the game, and that goal held up for over 48 minutes as the lone tally. Mercyhurst was outshot and out-chanced, but did find some success in the faceoff circle. The aforementioned strong goaltending from Blair was a key component as they tried to stay in the game while the clock ran down.
"We just never looked back," Dobson said. "We believed in ourselves, and we all just kept going forward."
With under ten minutes to play in regulation, the Lakers were getting desperate - and finally, salvation arrived in the form of Rachel Marmen. The junior defender scored her fourth goal of the season – and undoubtedly the biggest one – to tie the game at one. The teams stayed locked in the final minutes, forcing the game to overtime.
"It's exciting, coming back from a 1-0 deficit," Blair said. "Coming back and getting people to step up, it's awesome." Blair credited her defense and forwards, but her 30-save performance was key in the Lakers' eventual victory.
Just 4:19 in, Dobson scored Mercyhurst's second goal of the game, giving the Lakers their 15th CHA championship in program history and third in the last five years, topping off a fantastic season.
"I can't even explain it," Dobson said. "It's just such a good feeling, such a team win. It's all hard work, and it paid off."
Both Blair and Dobson were named to the CHA All-Tournament Team, along with Lakers defender Jordan Mortlock. Syracuse's Victoria Kilmek and Penn State's Natalie Heising, who each had a hat trick in the tournament, and Robert Morris defender Sarah Lecavalier, rounded out the All-Tournament Team.
Blair was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Of course, it's far from over; following their tournament victory, the Lakers are now preparing to face Cornell in Ithaca, New York on Saturday, March 14. Mercyhurst was named the eighth seed in the NCAA Division I tournament.
"The work's not done yet. We're not done yet. Everything's refreshed, it's 0-0 right now," Blair said.