The Robert Morris Colonials’ road trip rolls into Connecticut this weekend with a Friday start time that might be more appropriate for brunch than hockey as the Sacred Heart Pioneers play host at Webster Bank Arena on Friday at 10:30 a.m.
Consider the start time just another challenge to overcome for the Colonials in a season that hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, but has seen the team work past obstacles while forging a stronger unit that is playing some of its best hockey at the right time.
The upcoming two-game series with the Pioneers is the second consecutive road weekend for the Colonials, who now find themselves tied for fourth place in the Atlantic Hockey standings. It could be a quick drop or a sudden climb in those standings depending on how the weekend goes. The team comes into the weekend on the heels of a weekend tilt with the American International Yellow Jackets that saw them come home with two points following a disappointing 3-1 loss on Friday while getting a lift from a 5-3 victory on Saturday.
“I think we were average for two periods on Friday and had a really good third period,” head coach Derek Schooley said. “When you’re chasing the scoreboard, you just can’t put yourself down too many. We had some chances and their goaltender made some saves. We didn’t do a good job of getting to the net front. AIC did a really good job of stopping us from getting to the scoring areas.”
The Colonials then made the proper adjustments and overcame a 2-0 deficit the following day.
“That was a focus of ours, of getting back to the net and I thought that we did a really good job of that on Saturday,” Schooley said. “We were really good the whole game minus a penalty kill stretch where we gave up two goals in a minute and a half. We played with a lot of energy, got pucks to the net and came up with a lot of shots and traffic. Even though we were down 2-0 on Saturday, we felt we were playing well and that led to a comeback, we got a big goal from Alex Tonge with a great pass from Eli Ghantous and we were off and running.”
The Colonials will need to get off and running on Friday morning as they face a Sacred Heart side that has what it takes to take points in both games this weekend.
PIONEERS PRESENT CHALLENGE
The Colonials have never lost a regular season or playoff game to the Pioneers since the program’s inception, but that fact is more or less meaningless here as this year’s team has managed some huge wins including a victory on the road at nationally ranked Notre Dame earlier this season and more recently at Air Force.
“They’re a young hockey team and they’ve got some dangerous offensive players in (Marc) Jonstone and (Vito) Bavaro. Brett Magnus has been playing very well in goal for them lately too,” Schooley said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us, we’ve got some guys out of the lineup that we’re used to seeing on a regular basis and we’re going to have to have people stepping up and fill in for some big minutes for those guys. It’s always hard to win on the road, especially with the start time. We can’t hit the snooze button. We’ve got to get our wake up call and be ready to go.”
Up front, the Pioneers are led by sophomore Bavaro, who has amassed 13 goals and 22 points in 24 games, and Johnstone a freshman that has managed 20 points in 25 games thus far. At the back, freshman Alex Bates and sophomore Ruslan Rakhmatov lead the way with 12 points each. One glaring improvement in the Pioneers’ play to date is their team defense and goaltending that has allowed just 11 goals over their last five games. Magnus has started four of those games and appears to be reaching his best performance level of the season.
The scoring depth had a nice weekend at AIC, and starting off the arousal of the third- and fourth-line scoring was Jake Coleman, who managed his first goal of the season on Friday afternoon. It was a nice reward for Coleman, who had been a spark for the team over the course of his career, supplying big hits and strong forechecking work, while paying attention in his own zone.
“Jake plays with a lot of energy, he finishes every check and hits hard, he’s probably our hardest hitter on the team on the forechecking front,” Schooley said. “He does everything asked of him. His biggest fault is his lack of offensive production. That’s not because he doesn’t put himself into position to score, it’s because Jake is a pass first guy and we’d like him to be more of a shooter. On Friday, Jake did a very good job of rounding the net and winning a battle in the corner and taking the puck to the net while finishing and he did a good job of that on Saturday, as well. Hopefully, it’s a sign of him turning the corner offensively as he matures. ”
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Daniel Mantenuto, who had helped create some great scoring chances in recent games, managed to bury a chance in the Colonials’ victory. The two players will be key components as the playoff push continues and the scores come down and secondary scoring becomes even more of a necessity.
“(Coleman) and Mantenuto are just kind of coming into their own as players and hopefully they produce a little more offense,” Schooley said. “We’d been wanting more offense from those guys and it was good to get that from them because they have been playing with energy and playing well defensively and just hadn’t been converting chances. ”
Following this weekend, the Colonials will find themselves back at RMU Island Sports Center for five of the final six regular season games. They’ll be looking for points in every game, and for perhaps an extra win to create separation in the standings.
“It’s a weekend-by-weekend thing for us now and so much can happen,” Schooley said. “We’re four points out of first, but we’re also four points out of ninth, so it’s very tight. There’s a lot of parity and you just have to come out with points every weekend whether its two, three or four. You’ve got to make sure that you get them because everybody else is beating up on each other. You can’t go a weekend without getting any points right now.”
The Colonials have put themselves in a position to not only receive home ice in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs and a first-round bye, but even to have a shot at a regular-season conference title. They’ve done so by overcoming the inconsistent efforts they suffered in the first half of the season, and overcoming frustration at the lack of luck in some one-goal losses. The team has come a long way since the fall and one thing that has been consistent in the second half, has been a more focused and concentrated effort for 60 minutes.
“Just look at last weekend: We were tied 2-2 going into the third and come out with a 5-3 win,” Schooley said. “We were down one very late with Bentley and we tie it late and win in in overtime. Those are games in November that we don’t win and right now we’re playing what we feel is our best hockey of the year. We’re doing things the right way and getting a pretty complete effort.”