ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Robert Morris Colonials will play the Air Force Falcons on Saturday night with a berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line in the Atlantic Hockey championship game.
It’s a rematch from 2017, when the Falcons beat the Colonials, 2-1, and on some levels, it’s not unexpected that the two teams are back in Rochester with a title on the line. They both returned a lot from last years’ teams and came into the 2017-18 season with high expectations. The Falcons were the preseason pick to be the top team in the conference, with the Colonials coming in second.
But along the way, things didn’t go particularly smoothly for either squad, particularly for Robert Morris, which entered the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, missing a first-round bye and playing on the road in the quarterfinals.
But the Colonials got hot at the right time, battled through Bentley in the first round, swept Holy Cross in the quarterfinals and upset the top-seeded Mercyhurst Lakers in the semifinals on Friday afternoon. It’s been a big turnaround from the end of the regular season, when the Colonials came skidding down the stretch with an 0-5-1 finish.
“We’ve had a challenging season,” head coach Derek Schooley said after his team’s victory Friday. “Ups and downs. Last year, we didn’t have any expectations. I think we surprised a lot of people. This year, we have high expectations. Our guys have battled through some injuries. Our assistant coach who was with us for seven years, Mark Workman, passed away. He recruited a lot of the guys and coached the seniors for two years and the juniors. It’s been an emotional year. But we got hot at the right time.”
The Atlantic Hockey tournament has always seemingly always been this year. In a one-game elimination event, it’s more about the teams that are playing well at that moment than the ones that had the best season. Robert Morris knocked off the top seed in the semifinals for the second straight year. In 2016, the Colonials were the top seed and lost to RIT in the final. In 2015, Robert Morris came in ranked No. 1 and lost to Mercyhurst in the semis. In 2014, the Colonials won the whole thing as a No. 5 seed by beating No. 7 seeded Canisius in the final after the Golden Griffins toppled No. 1 Mercyhurst.
So while it may have come as a surprise to some of those folks that had watched the team finish the regular season on an 0-5-1 winless streak, it surprised nobody in the Robert Morris locker room.
“We’re a brotherhood,” defenseman Sean Giles said during the winless streak. “We believe that we’re the best team and we know that when we play our best and that execution follows we can beat anyone in the country.”
Throughout the waning moments of the season, the faith among the players seemed unflappable. There was a quiet confidence after every game it seemed, even in defeat, and an emphasis on the need to just keep generating chances, at some point, they’d have to start going in sooner or later.
And so they did. The Colonial offensive attack has come together when it matters most as evidenced by solid 3.83 goals per game average in five playoff games thus far. More importantly, it’s been a total team effort with goals coming off the sticks of players on all four lines and from all four classes. However, playoff hockey is just as much about solid defense and goaltending and perhaps even more so as the playoff push goes deeper. To that end, it has been equal to the task.
The Colonial defensive corps has been as steady as a rock through the postseason to this point, especially during even-ice stretches where they have spent little time in their own end on most nights while taking their shot blocking effort to another level. In between the pipes, Francis Marotte has taken his game to a new level at the right time, with a .943 save percentage in the postseason.
It looks like a team that has put it all together and now can seize the moments when games can be put away. It looks like a team on the verge of great things. The talent, skill and belief was always in this year’s edition and now that the 60-minute execution has been consistent, they may just be primed for another upset.