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Robert Morris

Robert Morris hockey gaining respect through Three Rivers Classic

| Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, 10:59 p.m.

Of the 31 goals he has scored in his career with Robert Morris, senior forward Brandon Denham recognizes his first remains one of the most important in the hockey program's recent history.

That goal, scored Dec. 29, 2012, delivered the Colonials one of their bigger upsets of the past five seasons, a 1-0 win over then-No. 5 Miami (Ohio).

It also earned the Colonials, in front of a crowd of more than 10,700, their first and thus far only championship in the Three Rivers Classic, the two-day tournament hosted at Consol Energy Center.

A significant stop along the farewell tour for Denham and Robert Morris' eight other seniors will happen Monday and Tuesday at the Penguins' home arena, where the Colonials will meet Penn State and UMass-Lowell (10-3-4) or Clarkson (7-6-2) in the fourth annual Classic. The Colonials (9-4-3), in search of their first Classic title since 2012-13, meet the Nittany Lions (11-2-3) at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Clarkson and UMass-Lowell will meet at 4:30 p.m.

“Every year, it's kind of marked on our calendars as a big weekend and something we want to win,” Denham said. “But especially (this year) since we won it the first year and haven't won it since.”

Penn State, in just its third season of NCAA Division I hockey, is ranked No. 14 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll.

Never have the Nittany Lions reached such prominence. And they've built their reputation with an entertaining style of play. Their 4.38 goals per game ties for second in the NCAA behind Michigan (4.47).

Who shares that No. 2 spot with Penn State? None other than the Colonials, whose power-play conversion percentage, 35.38, edges the Nittany Lions' mark of 30.43 for best in the nation.

Robert Morris, just outside the USCHO's top 20, leads the series with Penn State, 3-2, after winning by a two-goal margin in last year's Classic.

“It's definitely a rivalry in the making,” Denham said. “For us, it's definitely a game we circle every year just because of how big that school is and how close we are.”

Penn State sees the Classic as its last chance to add non-conference wins. The Nittany Lions dive into two-plus months of Big Ten play beginning Jan. 8. And other than Michigan, few teams in the conference are national title contenders, so wins in the Classic will help bolster Penn State's place in RPI rankings.

Where the Nittany Lions currently sit in the USCHO poll is not a significant matter for coach Guy Gadowsky.

“We never mention it as a coaching staff,” Gadowsky said on his radio show earlier this month.

“I don't know if the players mention it, look at it. … We've never had that as a goal.”

Whether Penn State or Robert Morris is capable of claiming the championship over UMass-Lowell, the No. 8 team in the USCHO poll, remains to be determined. The River Hawks, led by senior goaltender Kevin Boyle, allow just 1.76 goals per game, the sixth-lowest average in the NCAA. Boyle's 93.9 save percentage is ninth in the country.

“Every year, we keep bringing in better and better hockey teams, which contributes to it becoming more of a known commodity in the hockey world,” Colonials coach Derek Schooley said.

If nationally ranked teams stand in the Colonials' way of a Classic title, the results only affirm to Schooley and his players that they're still a program with much to prove. As much as they appreciated the 2012 tournament championship, the Colonials also valued what they learned from less successful appearances the past two seasons.

“We want to use this as a prelude to a (NCAA) championship Final Four,” Schooley said. “We're not in the business of just staying close anymore. We're in the business of winning hockey games.”

Bill West is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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