Pitt hockey ready to battle at national tournament
Daniel Merz knows the feeling.
He was one of several current Pitt hockey players to skate at last year's American College Hockey Association Division I national tournament.
There was a mission among the returning core to make it back and play in this year's event in Columbus. The mission became a reality when the Panthers captured the College Hockey Mid-America regular-season championship and the conference's automatic bid that accompanies it.
Now, on the cusp of Thursday's first-round game against Stony Brook, Pitt is gearing up for what they hope is a deep run through the bracket.
“We're really excited to go and show we belong there,” said Merz, a Norwin graduate and one of several Pittsburgh products and PIHL alums on the Panthers roster.
With the sometimes-heated rivalries from younger club teams and high school battles, Merz said its great that such a large group of local talent can come together with others from outside the region and mesh to produce a strong team.
“I came in as a junior and wanted to prove to myself that I could do the work, be a part of the team and help everyone,” said Merz, who played previously at Pitt-Greensburg in ACHA Division III. “That's what everyone wanted to do when they joined the team. We all want to win, and it comes down to playing as a team.”
Pitt went 12-1-1 in CHMA play and was 21-11-0-1 overall in the regular season. When it takes the ice at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, it will hope to snap a two-game losing streak from a setback to John Carroll in the regular-season finale and to Mercyhurst in the semifinals of the CHMA tournament.
The Panthers also hope to not repeat last year's first-round loss in the national tournament, a defeat at the hands of Oklahoma.
“They know what to expect,” Pitt coach Stu Rulnick said. “They're not going in like a deer in headlights. Since we clinched, the older kids have talked to the younger kids a lot about what nationals is all about.”
Pitt is the No. 18 seed this year and draws a Stony Brook team that comes to nationals with a 21-8-0-3 record.
“Stony Brook is a young and talented team,” Rulnick said. “You have to play well for 60 minutes against them. It's a tough draw. They've been there probably for the past 10 years in a row. It's a regular thing for them.”
A win for Pitt on Thursday puts the Panthers into the second round and a Friday matchup with No. 2 Adrian (30-1) at 4:30 p.m.
“We've definitely looked at films of Adrian, too,” Rulnick said. “We have to. If we get by Stony Brook, we can't just study them that night or the next morning. Adrian is 30-1 for a reason. They are extremely good.
“Nationals is top-notch college hockey. You're playing the best teams in the country. It's an honor to play at nationals. It's something we want to keep doing, not just being happy to be there two years in a row.”
Rulnick said the team refocused well after the conference-tournament loss to Mercyhurst on Feb. 24.
“That was tough. We wanted that playoff title, too,” Rulnick said. “We weren't resting anyone. We played our full squad. Things just didn't work out.
“The conference was pretty competitive all season. The teams were evenly matched. We won a couple of overtime games. If they went the other way, we might not be going to nationals. It was a great accomplishment to come out with the record we did.”
Merz leads the team in goals (17) and points (30), and Mars grad Craig Mazzotta ranks second with 16 goals and is tied for second in points with Canon-McMillan product J.D. Oddi with 24.
Oddi is third in goals scored (14).
“With that experience at nationals, we're really excited to go back with the confidence we can win some games,” Oddi said. “We've played a lot of competitive games this season, and that's helped us get ready for what we know will be close games at nationals.”
In all, 12 players have at least 10 points this season. Rulnick said it was imperative for his players to play more of a team game after 80 goals were lost from last year's team because of graduation.
“We've played a lot better defense this season which turned into a lot of offensive opportunities,” Rulnick said.
Nationals continues Sunday with the quarterfinals. The semifinals are Monday, and the national title game will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Central Oklahoma, the No. 7 seed and defending national champion, is a potential quarterfinal opponent if Pitt is able to win its first two games.
“Nationals is just like our conference tournament,” Rulnick said. “It's a single-elimination environment, and if you face a hot goalie, get some bad calls or the puck just doesn't bounce your way, you are done. We have to be ready for every situation and play the way we know we can.”