For the men’s hockey team, the theme following last weekend’s exhibition victories was depth. Nine freshmen saw ice time in the two-game preseason primer and 13 players registered points.
On Saturday at 7 p.m., the Red’s newcomers will play in their first official contest at Lynah Rink when an unfamiliar foe Mercyhurst (0-4-0) travels to Ithaca for the first time since Nov. 2003. That meeting, which ended in a tie, 3-3, represents the only matchup between the two squads in their programs’ histories.
With the focus on the team’s youth entering the season opener, junior defenseman and assistant captain Nick D’Agostino recalls the whirlwind experience of playing in his first home nearly two years ago — when the then-freshman assisted forward Joe Devin ’11 on the game-winner in a dramatic overtime victory against Niagara, 3-2.
“It’s a little overwhelming. It’s obviously a pretty exciting time, but you have to balance the excitement and the nerves,” D’Agostino said regarding the experience of playing in front of the home fans for the first time. “I played Niagara my first game, and it’s kind of a blur because you’re just trying to soak in everything … It’s really exciting and I’m sure [the freshmen] will do fine.”
“It’s an exciting time. I’m excited for those guys to play in front of a regular season Lynah crowd,” added senior defenseman and captain Keir Ross. “It’s a unique atmosphere, and you never get tired of it. I feel the same way every night I step out there — it’s never any different.”
Ross also noted that the competition among the younger players for ice time should help take away some of the nerves for the freshmen in their first home game.
With ECAC play still a week away, Saturday’s non-conference matchup against Mercyhurst represents an opportunity to play a team that head coach Mike Schafer ’86 admitted his squad knows little about.
“We’ll get a chance to look at video and check things out, but we’re more concerned with the details of our game and continuing to improve on a daily basis,” Schafer said of the Red’s preparation for the Lakers. “There’s a certain level of comfort you have to have with your system before you started to be too concerned with your opponent … We’re now seven days into practice, so there’s a tremendous amount of things that we need to continue to work on.”
The winless Lakers have struggled through the early season, particularly on defense, with Mercyhurst surrendering an average of 4.5 goals per game thus far. On offense, Mercyhurst has produced only six goals, led by two scores from senior forward Derek Elliot. Senior Max Strang has started all four games in goal, posting a 4.27 goals-against average and a .890 save-percentage.
“I know very little about Mercyhurst, and I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say that,” D’Agostino said prior to Tuesday’s practice. “I’m sure in the next couple of days the coaches will have the full scouting report for us.”
Though the team does not like to look ahead, conference play is just around the corner. When the calender turns to November, the Red will begin ECAC competition with four consecutive road games against Ivy foes Yale, Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth. Despite the temptation to think about those rivalry games, Ross says the team is focused on the task at hand.
“We try to take it a game at a time, Ross said. “Right now we’re just focused on this weekend and what is in front of us, and then when those [road] games come, we’ll take it one night at a time. Those are long road trips. It’s nice to get those out of the way before dinner, but right now we’re just focused on Mercyhurst.”
When Ross leads the Red out of the tunnel on Saturday night, it will mark the 94th time the captain has suited up in carnelian red and white. For many of the players following behind him, that entrance to the Lynah Rink ice will be the first of their careers. With a sellout crowd on hand, Schafer expects his youngsters to rise to the occasion.
“This is a group of freshmen that is not going to be intimidated,” he said. “They’re mature and have had a lot of international experience … and I don’t think [the atmosphere] is going to have any impact on them at all.”