NEVILLE TWP., Pa- There are no most valuable player awards given for quarterfinal rounds in the Atlantic Hockey Association Tournament. However if there were, Niagara University goaltender and Pittsburgh, PA native Chad Veltri would have undoubtedly earned one. The sophomore netminder stopped 44 of 45 shots on Sunday night as the Niagara Purple Eagles downed the Robert Morris Colonials by a 2-1 score, earning a place in next weekend’s semifinal round in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Purple Eagle forward Jake Billings supplied the game winning goal just 2:59 after the opening puck drop when he put a rebound past starting Colonials goaltender Noah West who stopped 35 of 37 shots himself in the loss. Billings wound up with three goals in the two Niagara victories and played a large role in helping to supply offense throughout the weekend series. Robert Morris outshot Niagara by a 18 to five margin in the first frame and had two power play opportunities that came up short thanks to Veltri and an assortment of timely shot blocks.
“First of all congratulations to Niagara,” Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley. “They came in with a game plan and Chad Veltri was outstanding in net and we didn’t convert enough of our chances. We had a lot of chances around the net, a lot of good looks. But unfortunately they got a lead and they got a bounce.”
Niagara then doubled their lead on a strange play as forward Walker Sommer sent a puck from the red line that deflected and made its way past West to double the Purple Eagle lead at 3:51 of the second frame. Robert Morris then threw the kitchen sink at Veltri for the remainder of the contest. However Niagara played a near perfect game from a system standpoint by getting pucks deep, playing in the Robert Morris end when possible, limiting mistakes and staying out of the penalty box.
“We’re disappointed in the result obviously,” Schooley remarked. “This team has been has been to the league final for six consecutive years and was undefeated in playoff series. We’re not used to being in this position so we’re disappointed but we’re very appreciative to be able to get the season that we needed to have.”
The 19 day layoff prior to the start of the weekend series coupled with the taxing nature of back to back overtime games seemed to take a physical toll on the Colonials who came up just short of making their seventh consecutive Atlantic Hockey semifinal appearance. Freshman forward Randy Hernandez was able to slice the Niagara lead in half with a goal at 19:49 of the third period which proved to be too little, too late.
“We were playing with multiple guys injured,” Schooley added. “It was tough. When you go 19 days without playing and have to turn around and battle and go two overtimes and do the things we needed to do to be successful; it was taxing on our guys. We worked hard and unfortunately we just didn’t score enough goals. I feel bad for our seniors right now. They gave a lot to this program as leaders. They gave up a lot during this pandemic to play. We’re just appreciative that the league and our athletic department did everything they needed to do for us to be successful.
The game marked the final time that seniors Nick Prkusic, defenseman Nick Jenny, and goaltender Dyllan Lubbesmeyer skated as Colonials. Robert Morris ended the season with an impressive 15-9 mark for the year, turning in a winning regular season for the first time since 2017-18.