An intriguing and important weekend of hockey is ready to take place at the RMU Island Sports Center this Friday and Saturday night, and it has everything that great hockey weekends are made of. With two teams that have had their fair share of hard fought regular season and post season battles and huge playoff ramifications on the line, fans should find themselves riveted to every shift as the Air Force Falcons come ready to tangle with the Robert Morris Colonials in the regular season finale for both schools.
For the Colonials, the weekend represents a chance to get their game right heading in to the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, while at the same time offering an opportunity to still nail down home ice and a first round, despite losing their last four games. Those four games saw the Colonials let points slip away by one goal on three occasions, including last Saturday night’s game in Mercyhurst where they were 15 seconds from hanging on to a 2-2 tie.
“I felt that we played hard and did everything the right way,” head coach Derek Schooley said. “We competed and got a lot of shots on net. Unfortunately they got a nice deflection in the overtime period and we’ve got to do a better job to close out games but I was pleased with the effort, it was something to build on and something to be excited for.”
Enter the Falcons this weekend, the team that eliminated Robert Morris from the Atlantic Hockey playoffs nearly a year ago in the championship game. For both teams, it’s a match up of familiarity as they both returned a large number of their lineups from that particular game.
“It’s an exciting thing to see about this weekend to see where we are heading into the playoffs,” Schooley said. “This weekend for us, is a playoff preview. We’ve got to determine our final roster of who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out and we’ve got to get everybody healthy. I still really believe in this hockey team to make a good run and give the best effort we possibly can to get to the NCAA tournament.”
FALCONS FIGHTING FOR PLAYOFF POSITION TOO
At the start of the season, if anyone would have suggested that the Falcons and Colonials would be potentially battling for the final first-round bye position heading into the final week of the regular season, they’d have been shot a strange look. The two teams were favored to be in the top two positions by many in October, and have both had to overcome shaky first halves of the season to put themselves in their current position.
The Falcons have been winning at a good clip in the second half, compiling a 9-3-1 record in their last 13 games. That resurgence has been led by net minder Billy Christopoulos, who has allowed more than three goals on just one occasion during the stretch while putting up two shutouts as well. Up front, Air Force has been led by a pair of 13-goal scorers in Erik Baskin and Matt Serratore while junior Matt Koch leads all blue liners with 14 points.
“They’ve got pretty much the same team returning that won the tournament last year minus their goaltender,” Schooley said. “They’re dangerous up front, a really good defense and Billy Christopoulos is a good goaltender. I’m enthusiastically looking forward for this weekend’s series. It gives us an opportunity to prepare to be in the best shape possible heading into the playoffs. We’ve got some things that we want to do a little bit better that we can work on but it’s also a big test and a big opportunity to see where we’re at heading into the playoffs with home ice and a potential bye on the line if we win these games. It’s kind of like a preliminary round, you’ve got to be prepared and put yourself in the best possible position to play. It’s going to be an exciting weekend.”
COLONIALS BEST MAY BE YET TO COME
“Do not forget about this team because it’s a team that can be very dangerous in the playoffs.”
That was Schooley’s warning to those that might write-off the Colonials after a so-so regular season. They may have hit a rough patch lately and have lost three one goal battles in their last four outings, but as the playoffs draw closer, those numbers may mean less and less. From top to bottom, there appears to be no clear cut favorite in the conference, and if there are big reasons for hope to be found, look no further than the fact that they will be returning some key pieces to the lineup sooner rather than later. More than that, one could point to Schooley’s history while at the helm, which includes three conference championship game appearances from teams that were either sub .500 or close to heading into the playoffs. One of those teams won the Atlantic Hockey tournament title in recent memory, seemingly coming out of nowhere earlier in the season.
Sometimes, it’s better to play into your best hockey of the season and simply carry the momentum through the tournament which is what the Colonials are preparing to do heading into the weekend.
“Sometimes you get into the rhythm of playing and you want to get as many games as you can under your belt,” he said. “Obviously, getting the bye sets you up to get to the second round without killing your hockey team. But this year especially with everyone being so close first to last, it’s going to be interesting.”
A SPECIAL CLASS
This weekend will also see a special group of seniors take to the ice for the final time in their regular season careers as the annual Senior Night takes place on Saturday. The class graduating this season ranks right among the very best in program history and has partaken in 20+ win seasons on more than one occasion.
“It’s a group of guys that have won a lot of hockey games together and have played a prominent role in the development of Robert Morris and our hockey program,” Schooley said. “They’ve won two-Three Rivers Classic championships, and two runners-ups, they’ve got two regular season titles and two runners up’s in the playoffs. It’s been a very decorated class, a class that has done a lot of very good things and a class that will be missed when it graduates. But just remember, they’re not done yet.”