For over a decade, College Hockey America as a conference has been dominated by Mercyhurst, with the Lakers taking the conference titles in 11 out of 12 seasons. Last season, Mercyhurst had a solid inter-conference showing, going 14-3- 3. They dropped one game to Lindenwood and two to Syracuse, the team that finished second in the conference. They are 0-1-1 so far, but their two games were against a top-flight North Dakota team.
Even with the early struggles, smart money is still on Mercyhurst to win the CHA. It seemed like Rochester Institute of Technology might unseat the Lakers at the head of the table, but after finishing sixth in the conference last year, RIT isn’t in the conversation at this point. If anyone stands a chance, it’s Syracuse, which has garnered enough confidence to finish in the top spot in the coaches’ preseason poll.
Last season, the perennial conference champions finished 19-11- 5 (14-3-3 in the CHA), and came into this season as the favorite to take it again. Syracuse is nipping at their heels, and Robert Morris is 2-0 after a pair of wins over Providence, while the Lakers are winless so far. It’s an early hole, but not a big one.
With 14 underclassmen on the roster, Mercyhurst boasts youth, but also inexperience. Among those players just coming off of their freshmen year is forward Rachael Smith, who led the team last year in scoring with 29 points and 11 goals in 34 games. The Lakers will need her offensive prowess now that Jenna Dingeldein and Emily Janiga, the second and third leading scorers, have both moved on.
Goaltender Sarah McDonnell (right) was the team’s best in the net last year. Now a sophomore, she came away from her rookie season with the College Hockey America Goaltender Trophy for the best goals-against average in the conference (1.29) and a 17-6-5 record. But she’ll need her defensive corps to hold down the blue line for that success to continue.
Senior Paige Horton (left), who also serves as the team’s captain, is part of the veteran defensive unit. With Horton at the helm, the team’s youth should prove to be a benefit rather than a hindrance.
Elsewhere, to the benefit of the Lakers, the Orange haven’t opened their season the way that they’d hoped either. They opened by splitting a two-game series with Bemidji State University. They face ninth-ranked Northeastern next, a team coming off of two straight losses and major defensive woes. If Syracuse can capitalize, they should be in good shape.
One bright spot is Syracuse’s penalty kill. They negated 15 shorthanded situations without allowing a goal to start the year. Back in the lineup again this season is junior Stephanie Grossi (right), who was awarded the conference scoring trophy at the end of last season after leading Syracuse with 36 points second among CHA players.
Another vet expected to make an impact is senior forward Jessica Sibley (left), who won the Best Defensive Forward Award after her efforts last year. With 30 points in 2015-16, Sibley finished tied for second in scoring and notched six game-winning goals, breaking a university record.
The chasm between Syracuse and its eternal rival, Mercyhurst, continues to shrink each year, and if any team can challenge the champs for the conference title, it’s the Orange.