ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Six minutes and forty seconds into overtime between Robert Morris and Mercyhurst in the first Atlantic Hockey semifinal on Friday afternoon, Robert Morris junior forward Michael Louria collected the puck off an erratic carom off the end wall, tucked it to his backhand, and punched it into the net behind Mercyhurst goaltender Brandon Wildung to give the Colonials a 5-4 victory and a place in Saturday’s final.
It was a weird, simple, broken play. In one moment, a harmless lose puck bounced into the wall. The next moment, the red light was on, Mercyhurst’s season was over and the Colonials had knocked off the No. 1 seed to advance to the title game.
The goal took just milliseconds for Louria to set up, but in some way, it was a long time coming.
Rewind to the end of the 2014-15 season. That year’s Colonials had the best regular season in the history of the program at 24-8 and cruised into Rochester for the second straight season. Unlike in 2013-14, when the Colonials won the tournament and made their first NCAA Tournament, they were the regular season champs in 2015-16. Sporting what came to be the top three scorers in program history in Brady Ferguson, Zac Lynch and Cody Wydo, the Colonials came into the Blue Cross Arena with a rightful swagger and aspirations of doing more than just making the NCAA Tournament.
Standing in their way in the semifinals were the Mercyhurst Lakers. Robert Morris completely dominated the contest from one end of the ice to the other but had a tough time solving freshman goaltender Brandon Wildung, who finished the game with 59 saves.
Despite Wildung’s gem, the Colonials still led with under a minute to play on goals from Scott Jacklin, Lynch and Wydo. But with Wildung on the bench for an extra attacker, Mercyhurst tied the game and then scored 3:04 into overtime to stun the Colonials and end their season.
At the end of the 2015-16 season, Michael Louria had played 51 games over two seasons for UMass-Lowell and had scored just 10 goals.
It was time for a change, and Louria found one at a place that had become something of a home. In his four seniors before joining the RiverHawks, Louria had made stops in Minnesota, Boston, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Pittsburgh, where his brother played at North Allegheny and he played with the Pittsburgh Hornets U18 squad.
Just down the road, Robert Morris was looking for a top-line forward. It was a perfect fit, with the only exception that Louria would have to sit out all of the 2016-17 season due to transfer rules.
When he got back into the lineup at the beginning of this season, things didn’t go perfectly. It took a while for the Colonials to find a good fit for Louria, and though his overall season numbers were solid at 13 goals and 14 assists in 39 games, they came in fits and spurts. Louria scored just four goals after the semester break and was skating on the third line coming into Friday night.
“My teammates around me have helped me when I haven’t been playing my best,” Louria said.
The team had a rough regular season, too. After being picked to place second by both the coaches and the media in preseason polls, the Colonials finished seventh, didn’t get a first-round bye and had to go on the road in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve had a challenging season,” Schooley said. “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.”
After a first-round series that went the maximum three games, the Colonials swept Holy Cross to set up their semifinal date with the Lakers and were right in there against Atlantic Hockey’s best teams as regulation neared a close.
A game usually doesn’t get to overtime without some heroics in regulation. In that regard, the Colonials’ victory on Friday came with more than most. After a frantic, back-and-forth third period, the Colonials faced a 4-3 deficit with just over a minute left.
Then, they got a break. Mercyhurst was called for too many men, Robert Morris got a power play and Schooley called time out to get his top unit out there. That included Ferguson, who scored his third goal of the game with 45 seconds left on the clock to tie things at 4-4.
“Honestly, I’m speechless,” said Ferguson, who buried his head in his hands after the goal in disbelief.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) March 16, 2018
It was the kind of goal the Colonials have become used to getting over the years from Ferguson, who became the club’s all-time leading point scorer this season and tied for third in team history with his 66th career goal off the blocker of a familiar foe in Wildung, now a Mercyhurst senior goaltender.
“Scorers like that don’t come around very often,” Schooley said. “We’ve been fortunate over the last couple of years to have Zac Lynch and Cody Wydo. … We’ve been fortunate to have big-time players. Brady, I think last year in the semis here, he had three goals, as well. He’s risen to the occasion. He’s become more of a complete hockey player this year.”
The crazy third period still had 45 seconds left to unleash some chaos, and it didn’t disappoint. With just one second on the clock, the Lakers got one of their best scoring chances of the game when Jack Riley was left all alone on the doorstep, took a clean cross-ice feed, only to be denied by a flash of Francis Marotte’s right pad.
“That’s a season saver right there,” Schooley said. “We don’t have a chance to win that game in overtime if Brady doesn’t tie it and he doesn’t make that save.
“He’s won a lot of hockey games for us in two years. He’s played a lot of minutes. He’s made a lot of big saves for us. Not any one bigger than that one with one second left. Like I said, season saver. We’re in here with tears right now if we’d tied it up with 40 seconds and give one up with one second left if he doesn’t flash that pad.”
SENDING THEM HOME
As the teams went back into the locker room, there was only one thing on the mind of the Robert Morris players that had been in that very situation three years prior: redemption.
“We had this happen to us our freshman year,” Ferguson said. “The exact same thing.”
“They tied us in the last minute when (our seniors) were freshmen,” Schooley said. “That’s what we talked about after the third period. It’s time for us to flip the script. Mercyhurst probably doesn’t even remember it, I don’t know. When you’re 24-8 and your season ends so abruptly when you’re having such a good year as we did when they were freshmen, you remember that.”
The Colonials took that into the overtime period, but over the first five minutes, Mercyhurst had the better of the scoring chances. That all changed when senior Timmy Moore, one of the few Colonials left from the 2014-15 team, came to the bench early with a stinger in his shoulder.
Moore changed on the back-check, something that is usually a no-no, but when Louria jumped on in his place at the same Ferguson created a turnover in the defensive, Alex Tonge scooped up the loose puck and fired it the length of the ice.
Louria was behind the defense, but couldn’t corral Tonge’s hard, long pass. It traveled all the way into the far left wing corner and would have easily gone for an icing, but the speedy Louria was well ahead of the Lakers trailing him.
Then, the puck took Robert Morris bounce, coming hard off the boards at a tight angle, surprising Wildung, who was out of position to play it, and ending up right on Louria’s stick.
Michael Louria is the OT hero for Robert Morris.
Colonials win, 5-4 and advance to the AHC championship game for the fourth time in five years. pic.twitter.com/ktR60FfYt0
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) March 16, 2018
“We knew the boards were bouncy in the pro rink and then I just caught it off the boards, tried to stay on side, make a move in tight and it went in,” Louria said.
Louria’s analytical explanation doesn’t give justice to the speed at which the Colonials turned the game on its head. Schooley summed it up nicely:
“Mike jumped out and the next thing you know, we were celebrating.”