Tim Benz: Robert Morris hockey saves season at best possible time
All good things must come to an end.
Or, maybe they don’t.
That appears to be the case for the Robert Morris men’s hockey team. But you couldn’t blame the Colonials if that truism started to seep into their thinking at some point this season.
RMU entered the 2018-19 season looking to reach the Atlantic Hockey championship weekend for a conference-record-tying sixth consecutive season.
When they approached the final weekend of the regular season at 10-20-2, it looked like that cherished streak of making the AHA semifinals was about to end.
That’s when things started to change for Derek Schooley’s club. They swept their final series against Mercyhurst.
Then they did the same in a first-round best-of-three against Holy Cross.
Then they survived a three-game road series at Bentley when freshman forward Justin Adamo scored a Chris Kunitz-esque series-walk-off winner in overtime.
🎙️Game 2: https://t.co/4rQAeECLsA
🎙️Game 3: https://t.co/gN8I7LZC2I
Thanks to Tim & Mike for making the trip!
— RMU Men’s Hockey (@RMUMHockey) March 19, 2019
Now they are in Buffalo for the conference final four again this weekend after all. Game 1 is Friday at 4:30 p.m. against top-seeded and No. 19-ranked American International. If the Colonials pull off that upset, as well, they’ll tangle with either Niagara or RIT for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Colonials have made that trip once before. That was back in 2014 when they won the Atlantic before losing to college hockey powerhouse Minnesota in the NCAA first round.
“I’ve said it all year. We’ve had a good a team, but for some reason, it wasn’t going our way,” Schooley said. “It was a bounce, a penalty, a late goal against. If something needed to be fixed, we’d fix that, and then something else would break. “But we knew we had the talent, the horses in the room. We just had to keep believing.”
You could understand why Schooley may have been struggling to figure out why the Colonials never got traction.
His roster returned the likes of forwards Alex Tonge and Luke Lynch, defenseman Eric Israel and goaltender Francis Marotte. All of them have some sort of all-league credit on their resumes.
However, the blue line is extremely young. It featured four freshmen in uniform at many times this season. And replacing the steady offense of all-time leading scorer Brady Ferguson — who left the program after his senior year in spring 2018 — proved challenging.
The Colonials long had been a team that outskated and outscored many other teams in the AHA. In this recent 6-1-1 hot streak, Robert Morris has learned to win tight, low-scoring games. Six of those eight contests were final scores between 1-0 and 3-2. None of them featured a multi-goal margin.
“You learn a lot from tough times in the season,” Marotte said. “We knew we were better on paper than what we showed on the ice. We just kept working hard and kept a positive attitude. That transferred to our last weekend. We were able to get our confidence up, and that helped us in the playoffs.”
Schooley credits a more straightforward approach in recent weeks for their success.
“We’ve focused on getting more pucks to the net and not passing up shots,” Schooley said. “We are shooting the puck more. We aren’t as cute. We aren’t as perimeter. We aren’t trying to make the perfect play. And we’re focusing on getting pucks below the goal line.”
There was a tangible sense of desperation from the team’s five seniors against Bentley. Israel and winger Michael Louria scored in a 2-1 win to stay alive in Game 2. Tonge scored in Game 3. Brandon Watt and Kyle Horsman, often fourth-line grinders, started generating scoring chances and possessing the puck in the offensive end.
“We looked at each other before Game 2 and said this isn’t our last one,” said Watt, the team captain. “Then before the overtime in Game 3, we said ‘this isn’t our last period.’ Playing for each other helped elevate our game against Bentley.”
Parity was the word of the year in Atlantic Hockey. Seven points separated the bottom six teams in the conference. Seven points also separated the top five teams in the conference.
Schooley often said during the season that timing of playing teams was more important than the opponent on a given weekend.
“The way we played this past weekend, I wouldn’t put it past us to see us continue on to the NCAA Tournament,” Schooley said.
So maybe good things won’t come to an end this weekend either.