NEVILLE TWP. —- If you attend a Robert Morris women’s hockey game this season, chances are, you’re going to see a close game.
The Colonials are 7-1-4 after their 2-1 win over the Syracuse Orange Saturday, and 11 of their 12 games have ended in a one-goal game or a tie.
With conference rivals and strong non-conference opponents, it’s been a good test so far, and the Colonials are responding. The way they’re going about it could pay dividends, as well. After all, tight-checking, low-scoring games are often the norm come postseason, a place the Colonials would like to improve after their semifinal exit from the College Hockey America tournament.
“They all seem really interesting, and they’re all really close,” said head coach Paul Colontino. “You get used to it. It’s a good thing. It’s not that I woudn’t take winning games 5-1 and getting to relax a little bit, but I tell you what, a close game, a one-goal or two-goal game, where you can go up or down, forces people to play mentally tough hockey — tight defense where every single shift and every single play matters. It means something.”
There’s definitely a difference between winning games big and winning in close games. The pressure on every shift never subsides as each one becomes more important than the last. But the Colonials defense, in particular, seems to be thriving on that pressure. The unit led by defenders Maggie LaGue, Mikaela Lowater and Kirsten Welsh and goaltenders Lauren Bailey and Jessica Dodds is allowing an average of just two goals per game on the season.
“Eleven out of 12, you kind of get used to it. You know what to expect. It’s stressful, I’m not going to lie. It’s fun, though. I like it,” said LaGue, a sophomore getting big minutes on the top pair. “There’s a lot of tough competition, especially with league games. … It keeps it interesting and keeps it fun.”
Dodds made 35 saves, including 15 in the third period, in what has become a routine outing for her this season. Dodds has a career-best .944 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average through six games. Clearly, she enjoys the challenge of playing in tight games.
“It’s much better when your team is in a close game, because you’re more into the game,” she said. “You’re more focused every time you’re playing in a close matchup. It’s a fun game. It’s a good atmosphere to play in. … It helps lay the groundwork for the postseason.”
The other benefit the Colonials have realized this season has been the ability to keep Dodds’ workload down. The four-year starter is already the school’s career leader in wins and shutouts. This season, Colontino is hoping that by relying on his sophomore, Bailey — who also has excellent numbers through six games — he’ll have a fresher goaltender come playoff time.
“They’re doing excellent jobs every single night. It allows us to distribute the workload a little bit,” he said. “It’s a long season for a student athlete, at goaltender particular. Our team has confidence in both goalies. They play in front of both goalies extremely well. It’s a good situation.”
SPECIAL TEAMS KEY
The Colonials’ weekend series with Syracuse was clearly a battle of special teams, as the squads seemed to spend more time shorthanded than at even strength. After combining for 23 power plays Friday night, they traded 16 chances on Saturday night.
The RMU power play finished the weekend 2 for 22. That’s not where Colontino wants that unit to be, but he said it becomes difficult to convert once a team has seen your set up so many times.
“When you have that many power plays, it becomes less of a factor and less of a numbers game,” he said. “On the season, we want to be 25 percent on the PP, but when you have 12 power plays and sometimes they’re broken, to me, the numbers just don’t mean as much.”
“We had a lot of chances, which coach is happy about,” said first-year forward Jaycee Gebhard. “He doesn’t expect us to score every single time when we have 19 power plays, but once we get more than two or three power plays, we just go in chaos mode and don’t really set up just to kind of keep the other team looking around.”
That’s how the Colonials scored their power-play goal Saturday, with Gebhard jamming home the mid-air rebound of Brittany Howard’s one-timer.
“It was a nice shot by Britt, it went up in the air, and I just happened to hit it,” Gebhard said.
The penalty kill, on the other hand, should be extremely happy with their 16-for-17 weekend, which came at the expense of a Syracuse forward lineup that can put some serious size in front of the net — always an advantage with the extra skater.
“I think of it as a challenge,” Dodds said. “These girls have four or five inches on me. It’s kind of fun to see how I can battle for the puck and fight for my ground, because ultimately, my goal is to stop the puck and they’re trying to screen me. If I can understand what they’re trying to do — that they’re trying to screen me — all I have to do is find the puck and make sure that I’m battling for my ground and making sure I can see the puck.”
THE NEXT STEP
The 1-0-1 weekend left the Colonials in first place, with a trip to last-place RIT next weekend the only thing separating the Colonials from their off week.