Atlantic Hockey Semifinal
No. 4 Robert Morris vs. No. 1 Canisius
5:05 p.m. Friday, Blue Cross Arena, Rochester N.Y.
The Robert Morris Colonials started the 2016-17 campaign with more questions than answers, at least amongst those outside the locker room. But they quickly raised expectations with their play virtually every weekend along the way and now find themselves just two wins away from the program’s second Atlantic Hockey tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth.
Up first, they will find the Canisius Golden Griffins, whom they will tangle with on Friday afternoon at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester N.Y., a building both teams are fairly familiar with, having played there seven times combined in the last four seasons.
The Griffins own the longest unbeaten streak in the nation, now standing at 17 games after dispatching Niagara in the previous playoff round. The teams last met in October at Canisius where the Griffins took three out of four points, but the relevant takeaways from that weekend are few and both teams are playing at a higher level coming into this weekend.
“A lot has changed with our team and a lot has changed with their team,” Colonials head coach Derek Schooley said. “They’re playing with a lot more confidence offensively and we’ve kind of found who fits what role and how we need to play on a daily basis. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Canisius has done this year. I think any time you go 17 games unbeaten, it says a lot about their program and their team. But as we’ve seen, anything can happen in a one game knockout. We’ve been the number one seed the last two years and not won the championship.”
The Griffins also bring a Hobey Baker finalist with them to Rochester in goaltender Charles Williams who has enjoyed a season to remember between the pipes for Canisius. To be successful against not only Williams, but a team that has found more offense to complement a solid defensive game will mean the Colonials will have to do what is necessary and have a net front presence the entire game.
“He’s been the top goalie in the conference,” Schooley said. “They’ve got a tremendous amount of offense in [Dylan] McLaughlin and [Ryan] Schmelzer and they’re very deep and they have some good defensemen, but any time your goalie leads the nation in save percentage, those are things that speak very highly of your team. We need to play our game and do what we’ve been doing. We need to get a lot of shots on net and be around the net.”
The Colonials come in playing at a high level themselves though, having won their last five games in convincing fashion, including a sweep of Holy Cross in the previous playoff round. It was a series that saw some of their best players take their games to a new level as the dynamic top line of Brady Ferguson, Alex Tonge and Daniel Leavens made their presence felt all weekend while at the same time, the other forward lines found more success, as goals from Spencer Dorowicz and Daniel Mantenuto and spirited play from forward Timmy Moore rounded out a potent Colonial attack.
“We’ve been getting scoring from a lot of different people. Our top line has been very successful and we have some very dynamic offensive players but everybody has been involved. You have to go out and play your game. You have to force the other team to be uncomfortable and force them to play your pace and if you can get them outside of their comfort zone then you’ve got the opportunity because you have the type of game you’re looking for.”
The single game rounds can be a different animal altogether though. And having many man games of experience from both players and coach can be a blessing this time of year. The Colonials have that and then some, and know what it takes to win these types of games. The sort where one bad bounce can end a season, or a good one can propel you to another round.
“I think you get to a point where everybody’s playing their best hockey this time of year,” Schooley said. “And you get into a one game knockout. You have to have things go right for you, you have to get the bounces and the breaks and you have to pay the price. That’s not to say we haven’t done that in the past but we haven’t been lucky in the last two years. It’s a challenging scenario.”
But perhaps the greatest hope for RMU is the fact that all season long, a young team has come together under the watch of coach and a dedicated leadership group among the upper classmen, and are playing with nothing to lose, but expecting to win at the same time.
“We’re not tense, we’re not tight and we’re not worried about anything other than what’s in front of us. All this group cares about is that they make Robert Morris the most successful program that it can be and that means winning hockey games. They’re not done yet. We’ve been counted out all year in everything that we’ve done from where we were picked to finish in the standings to all league teams to if we were going to get home ice. Don’t count this team out, because all they have done is continue to surprise people.”
No. 20 Canisius 21-10-7
Coach: Dave Smith; 172-222-59
The Golden Griffins have been to Rochester on four other occasions, dating back to their first appearance in 2010 and won the tournament championship in 2013. They started out the season playing sub-.500 hockey in the early going before ending the year on a 17-game unbeaten streak which included two impressive weekends where they took three out of four points against both Army and Air Force.
The Griffins are led up front by McLaughlin and Schmelzer, both members of the 30 point club, and at the back by Cameron Heath who managed 18 points for the season. Their All-Time record at Rochester stands at two wins and three losses in AHC tournament play.
No. 17 Air Force 24-9-5
Coach: Frank Serratore; 402-411-85
There hasn’t been a more successful team in this phase of the tournament in AHC history. The Falcons are 10-1 in Rochester including a staggering five tournament championships. Their lone loss happened last year at the hands of RIT. The Falcons have maintained a torrid pace for the most part this season en route to 24 wins which includes a win over perennial powerhouse Boston College and an overtime loss against No. 1 Denver. They’re led in scoring by Jordan Himley, who managed 19 goals and 31 points and sophomore Kyle Haak who supplied 30 points. Defenseman Phil Boje led the way among back liners with 28 points on the year. Shane Starrett comes in as the anticipated netminder.
Coach: Brian Riley; 145-245-65
The Black Knights make their fourth trip to Rochester in program history this weekend and in three previous attempts are a combined 1-3 with one championship game appearance, a loss to Air Force in 2007. The Colonials ended their season in Rochester almost a year to the date with a 1-0 overtime victory. Army managed a third place finish in conference play and achieved their highest win total since 2007-08 using a mix of gritty play, relentless forchecking, and outstanding goaltending from Hobey Baker nominee Parker Gahagen. Forwards Conor Andrle and Zach Evancho lead the way offensively for Army with 28 and 23 points, respectively, while freshman Alex Wilkinson leads all defensemen with 16 points.
Robert Morris 21-11-4
Coach: Derek Schooley; 212-204-58
This year marks the fourth consecutive trip to Rochester for the Colonials who have a combined record of 3-2 including a tournament championship in 2014 and a championship game appearance last season. The Colonials improved at a stunning rate this season, exceeding all expectations and were able to enjoy big non conference wins over a ranked Ohio State team and a win over ranked Quinnipiac in the finals of the Three Rivers Classic in December. Ferguson led the team with 55 points while his linemates, Leavens and Tonge, managed to top the 40 point level this season. On the back line, sophomore Eric Israel set the pace with 29 points and between the pipes, freshman standout Francis Marotte had a stellar season, spending large parts of the year among the leaders statistically.