Lehigh sophomore goalie Andrew Carlin moves to make a save on Villanova forward Troy Donahue during Lehigh’s game against Villanova on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, at the Steel Ice Rink. After winning only four games in the 2013-2014 season, the Mountain Hawks are now a playoff contender. (Erik Thomas/B&W Staff)

The turnaround of Lehigh ice hockey

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Three years ago, the Lehigh ice hockey team finished its season with just four wins.

It started that season with no plan or expectations and ended it on an eight-game losing streak.

All of that is just a memory now.

The Mountain Hawks (13-9-0-2, 6-6 ECHA) ended last season by winning their first-ever playoff game and making it to the finals of the Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs. They entered last season with a plan for the first time and followed through with it.

The team will enter the playoffs as the fourth seed in its division and hope to go even farther than last year. In just the past few years, the Mountain Hawks have turned from a losing team to a championship contender.

Senior Chris Ramondelli, who has been with the team since the four-win season, said a change in the level of commitment and expectations is what sparked the success of the team. He said the team realized it had plenty of skilled players and that it could do a lot better than four wins.

“So it’s just expecting more of the team and everyone staying committed, I think has been the biggest difference,” Ramondelli said.

Senior Joe Ramondelli, Chris’ brother, said the year after the four-win season was a turning point for the team and his class. In addition to being more committed, he said his class started getting more playing time and building confidence. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs, but the confidence carried over into the next season.

Joe Ramondelli said each season his class received more playing time and gained more confidence. When new people joined the team, they fed off that confidence with his class becoming the role models.

Coach Tom Laessig echoed his players and said the development of the now-seniors has been a vital part of this team’s success. He added that their development has provided leadership for the team and because of that, the commitment level of the players has grown.

Chris Ramondelli said coaching changes during his sophomore year added to the change in the team as well. Before then, the team had two coaches, Laessig and Joe Zitarelli. During the 2014-15 season, Laessig added Pat Carroll to the coaching staff.

Carroll had past playing experience at Slippery Rock University and coaching experience in the world juniors B tournament in Russia and Finland. Chris Ramondelli said Carroll brought a strict mindset to the team and pushed it more than it had been pushed before.

Laessig agreed that Carroll brought more discipline to the team. He said Carroll has made the program more serious than it had been in years prior by instituting rules as minor as having the coaching staff wear suits on the bench to look more professional, and that the players became more serious about their playing after seeing how Carroll promoted the program.

Throughout this season, the Mountain Hawks have lost a few key players to injuries, namely forward Henry Brooks and defensemen Will Duggan and Andrew Clayton. Brooks is a key part of Lehigh’s top line and is tied for eighth in the ECHA with 16 goals, while Duggan and Clayton are two of Lehigh’s top defensemen and both see time on the power play.

Laessig said the injuries held the team back from its full potential this year. Duggan’s and Clayton’s injuries came just before two key games against Drexel University and Towson University, both of which resulted in a loss for Lehigh.

Brooks, meanwhile, got hurt during the first game of a back-to-back weekend against Villanova University, forcing Lehigh to skate only 14 players during the second game.

“I think (the injuries) absolutely held us back from winning the league,” Laessig said. “Absolutely.”

Brooks and Duggan will both be back with the team in time for the playoffs.

Lehigh will graduate seven seniors this year, including the entire top offensive line. Laessig said it will be difficult for the team to replace the goal-scoring ability that will be lost when Chris Ramondelli, Brooks and Kevin McGee all graduate.

The defensive core for the Mountain Hawks is young, with Joe Ramondelli as the only senior defenseman while the rest of the core is made up of sophomores. Laessig said the team will have a strong defensive base off which to build the offense.

The recent success has brought with it some milestones for the team. Last season, Lehigh beat Navy at home and won a playoff game for the first time in team history. This season, Lehigh went to Navy and beat them at their rink for the first time.

Laessig said going to Navy’s home rink to play is hard for Lehigh because Navy is the only team in the league that uses an Olympic-sized rink. He noted that Lehigh was at a disadvantage because there is more ice than what they are used to while Navy practices on that rink every day. Lehigh ended up beating Navy in a shootout, 4-3.

Joe Ramondelli, who scored a goal off a pass from his brother late in the second period to tie the game, said that game was the best win of his Lehigh career.

“There is just something special about beating a team at their rink,” Joe Ramondelli said. “And when you win, it’s just like silence among the crowd. It’s just kind of a good feeling.”

Lehigh will face Villanova in the first round of the ECHA playoffs Feb. 24 at the Ice Works Skating Complex in Aston, Pennsylvania.

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