BUFFALO — American International came into the Atlantic Hockey postseason as the league’s No. 1 seed, and the Yellow Jackets showed why on Friday with a dominant performance in the AHC semifinal at Harbor Center.
But the No. 8-seed Robert Morris Colonials did not go down without a fight. Despite the Yellow Jackets carrying the play, the Colonials twice fought back from a one-goal deficit and forced overtime with a dramatic goal late, but Blake Christensen ended things at 1:44 of the overtime period.
The loss ended Robert Morris’ playoff run in the Atlantic Hockey final four for the fifth consecutive season. RMU has made it to the AHC semifinals in each of the last six seasons, winning the tournament in 2014 and losing in the semifinal in 2015 and the final in the each of the last three seasons.
“We’ve been here six years in a row and five times, I’ve stood up at this podium sad,” Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because we got here. You’ve got to get here to win a championship. I wish the remaining teams the best of luck, but it hurts, it stings.”
Early in the overtime period, Christensen carried the puck down the left into the Robert Morris zone, made a spin move and took a shot that Robert Morris goaltender Francis Marotte turned aside. But Christensen continued behind the net and the puck followed him. He then walked out in front from Marotte’s left and found room along the ice to send the Jackets to the final.
Daniel Mantenuto sent the game to overtime with a goal at 18:55 of the third period. With an offensive-zone faceoff, Schooley pulled goaltender Marotte to give the Colonials a 6-on-5 advantage.
Mantenuto won the faceoff, and the puck went from Eric Isreal to Alex Tonge to Nick Prkusic and back to Mantenuto between the faceoff circles, where he fired it past AIC goaltender Zackarias Skog to tie the game after the Yellow Jackets had the better of the play throughout.
“We have a lot of experience in these situations,” Mantenuto said. “I think we always believed. We knew we could tie things up. We did. We were led by our seniors.”
AIC had a 35-25 shot advantage through regulation. Both AIC goals came with the Yellow Jackets taking the puck right to the paint underneath the skates of Marotte.
“They’re an offensive team,” Mantenuto said. “Their defense joins the rush. They’re skilled, they’re fast, they move pucks well. … There were times when we just didn’t establish the forecheck at some points. I think if we had done that, we could have had more zone time and that would’ve helped.”
In the first period, it was defenseman Jan Stefka, just a second before a Robert Morris penalty expired, who walked out from behind the net and stuffed puck underneath Marotte’s pads from point-blank range to give AIC its first lead. The goal was the first of Stefka’s career and the only special teams goal of the game despite a combined nine power plays.
Late in the first period, Alex Tonge got the Colonials on the board with an outstanding shot. Daniel Mantenuto forced a turnover in the AIC zone, and Michael Louria fought through a pair of Yellow Jackets to make a cross-ice feed to a streaking Tonge, who deftly flicked the puck on his backhand just under the crossbar to even the score at 1-1.
After RMU tied things up, it was another attempt from in tight that gave the top-seeded Yellow Jackets the lead once again early in the second. With multiple players and sticks crashing the crease, AIC forward Joel Kocur was able to find the rebound of a Ryan Polin shot and shove it past an outstretched Marotte. The goal was initially waived off, but was awarded to the Yellow Jackets on video review, giving them the lead once again.
AIC will advance to the Atlantic Hockey championship game, which will be played on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at HarborCenter in Buffalo, where they will face the winner of RIT and Niagara.