Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

Robert Morris

RMU, Air Force look for conference dominance

Brandon Watt skates in front of the Air Force bench in 2015. -- BRIAN MITCHELL

Robert Morris (11-6-3, 9-5-2 Atlantic Hockey) vs. U.S. Air Force Academy (13-7-4, 10-4-2 Atlantic Hockey)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m. at 84 Lumber Arena, Neville Twp.
If fans were limited to picking one or two series to see in person when the Robert Morris schedule was released, the coming series with the visiting Air Force Falcons would definitely get strong consideration as a can’t miss weekend of hockey at 84 Lumber Arena.

When these teams take to the ice, fans can expect two very good hockey teams giving it everything they have, complete with skillful and speedy forwards, strong defense, and highlight-reel goaltending performances.

The Colonials come into the weekend fresh off an idle weekend that saw the team heal up some mid-season wounds and focus on some different things.  However, it was a weekend that they might have wanted to not be idle. Robert Morris had built some considerable momentum coming off their win in the Three Rivers Classic, followed up by a conference sweep over a much improved American International team.”

“We had some injuries, so having a weekend off was nice,” Colonials head coach Derek Schooley said. “But obviously we’d have liked to have kept playing and maybe take a weekend off in a couple more weeks.  So, I guess it’s a little bit of both. We were able to get healthy and get some things accomplished.”

The Colonials had been playing without forward Jacob Coleman (concussion) and defenseman Rob Mann (lower body).

The Falcons come into the weekend just one point out of the lead in Atlantic Hockey and have scored some big wins out of the conference as well, not unlike their opponent this week whom are just two points behind them in the standings.

“They’re a team that tied Ohio State [and] they beat Boston College,” Schooley said. “It’s going to be a tightly contested series I believe and I think both teams will bring their ‘A’ game and they’re going to provide some great college hockey for the fans. Air Force has always been a strong team and a change to a few of their systems last year has helped them climb back the standings. They’re a skilled hockey team and they’ve got some high end forwards and some very good goaltending.”

The programs are very familiar with each other, having spent time in College Hockey America before both migrated to the AHC and the relationship between Schooley and Air Force head coach Frank Serratore perhaps runs as deep as any in college hockey.

But the coaches don’t play these games, the players do, and the games between the schools so far have mostly been either one-goal games, have gone to overtime or have been played completely level, with neither side yielding an inch.

“This weekend is no different than any other weekend in Atlantic Hockey,” Schooley said. “Our conference is deep and has a lot of good teams and that’s evidenced by the tightness of the standings from first to last, there’s no big disparity. So to put any more emphasis on this weekend what we still have left to play would be something that we don’t want to do.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RMU: The trio of forwards on the ColonialS top line, Brady Ferguson, Daniel Leavens and Alex Tonge, show no signs of slowing down so far in the second half through two weekends. Ferguson and Leavens still rank in the top 10 players in the nation in scoring, with Leavens making a hard charge, leading the team with six points in the last four games.

Behind them, the scoring depth is starting to jump to another level as Timmy Moore, Luke Lynch and Matthew Graham have emerged as go-to guys for secondary scoring. Graham is coming off a two goal performance versus AIC two weekends ago. 

What will be interesting to watch over the second half will be the continued development of freshman defensemen Alex Robert and Sean Giles, who have been seeing increased minutes filling in for injuries or departures. Their additions to the Colonials defensive corps have made the unit as deep as it’s been in recent memory, and also seen it play at a high level.

“Obviously you never want people to get injured or to leave, but we’re very comfortable with Sean Giles and Alex Robert,” Schooley said. “They’ve really started to develop their game at the division one level over the last couple of weeks so it’s a benefit to us to be deep. We haven’t had many injuries to our defensive corps. That’s why you haven’t seen guys like Eli Ghantous and Robert Powers get as much ice time in their first years as they would have liked. But it helps when you’ve got two freshman developing and getting better and helping pick up the slack of two seniors that weren’t in the lineup last week. It definitely bodes well for the future.”

Air Force: The Falcons bring a well-balanced scoring attack into the weekend with nine players in double digits on the score sheet so far. Forward Kyle Haak leads the way with 21 points while Jordan Himley leads all goal scorers with 12. Keep an eye on junior defenseman Phil Boje, one of the best defensemen in Atlantic Hockey, who comes into the weekend with five goals and 10 assists.

LAST WEEK

RMU: The Colonials had last weekend off. Prior to that they swept American International at 84 Lumber Arena

Air Force: The Falcons lost at home on Friday night to Canisius 4-1 and played to a 2-2 tie with the Griffins on Saturday

GOALTENDING

RMU:  For the Colonials, it would be hard to find a reason not to keep rolling with the freshman Francis Marotte (11-3-2, .947 save percentage). Marotte ranks third nationally in goals-against average and first in the nation in save percentage and should get the nod to start the weekend. Junior Andrew PIkul and senior Dalton Izyk are both available to the team as well.

Air Force:  For the Falcons, sophomore Shane Starrett (12-4-3, .915 save percentage) leads the way, following up an outstanding freshman season with a solid effort this season so far. Behind him, sophomore Billy Christopoulous could see action should Starett stumble early in the weekend.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

At Stake: With both teams being so close to the top of the standings and separated by a mere two points, it goes without saying that both teams need these points to help stay in a good place as the season winds down and the battle for home ice and a first-round bye becomes even more intense.  

All Time: The series between the two is tied at 14-14-2.
Bold Prediction: These will be two incredibly hard fought games and Air Force comes in following a home weekend where the results didn’t go their way. The Colonials come in a little bit healthier and a little more well-rested, but will need 60 complete minutes to win either game, anything less than that simply won’t do.  

The coaches know each other better than almost any two head coaches in NCAA Hockey. There’s no secrets, these two teams simply face off and give their best almost every night. I’ll call for the split here with the Falcons taking the win on Friday while the Colonials rebound for the win on Saturday.

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