Pittsburgh Hockey Digest

Robert Morris

Weekend Preview: Colonials renew ‘I-79 Series’ with Mercyhurst

Defenseman Alex Bontje battles a Mercyhurst player in the 2015 AHC semifinal. -- BRIAN MITCHELL

Robert Morris (9-5-2, 7-4-1 Atlantic Hockey) vs Mercyhurst (6-9-0, 6-6-0 in AHC)
Saturday 7:05 PM at 84 Lumber Arena, Neville Twp, Pa.
Sunday 4:05 PM at Mercyhurst Ice Center, Erie, Pa.

It’s one of the hardest weeks to play and one of the hardest to stay focused for, and for the Robert Morris Colonials and Mercyhurst Lakers, it represents a critical weekend with four huge points on the line before the Christmas break for both schools. It’s finals week, and while classroom achievement is the top priority for both teams, the players will need to stay sharp and focused to avoid going into the break on a down note.

The Colonials season that has seen them shake off some early losses rolled into Bentley University last week and saw them play very well in a difficult venue. Though the results weren’t what they’d hoped for with a 4-3 loss on Friday night before a 4-1 response on Saturday, head coach Derek Schooley saw some things about his team’s battle level and energy that he liked.

“I thought we played really well both nights,” Schooley said. “Unfortunately, we got some bad bounces that ended up in our net including a couple off bodies there were around our net. You’re always disappointed when you lose, but I couldn’t fault the effort one bit. It was outstanding and I thought our effort and execution were even better on Saturday. I thought we played a 60-minute complete game. We had some tremendous energy, the group played hard and I can’t say enough about their performance last weekend. We were just on the wrong side of the win/loss column last Friday.”

Like the Colonials, the Lakers start to the year saw them take some lumps in the first few weeks, but the team has been better in recent weeks, pulling their conference record to the .500 mark, placing them in the middle of the Atlantic Hockey standings. The history between the schools has seen some outstanding battles, both high and low scoring, and some dramatic finishes. It’s not uncommon for a tight, 1-1 game to explode into a offensive frenzy on a dime in the third period. Over the years fans have been treated to scoreless ties, 60 save performances, and some physical play as both teams tend to have size and know how to use it.

“We’ve had some very tight, close hockey games that usually end up with a lot of shots and good goaltending,” Schooley said. “They’ve always been close games with a lot of ties going back to year one when we had a 0-0 tie with them. I think you’re going to see a very similar thing this weekend. You’re going to see two teams that are anxious to get home for Christmas break, but also anxious to get points in the standings. We can’t focus on Christmas break until after the horn sounds on Sunday and then we’ll take that break which will only be eight days, and get after it again for the Three Rivers Classic.”

The teams are eager to get to the break, but before that, there’s work to be done, both in the classroom and on the ice. It’s an important four points, and to get them, it will take quite an effort in the face of distractions. That’s something the Colonials remember well from a year ago.

“You always want to win your games going into the break and I think we were all disappointed last year when we went up to Canisius the day before the break and did not play well and it sticks with you,” Schooley said. “You want to make sure you have some good performances. You’re not going to win all your games but if you give a great effort usually you’re going to be on the right side of the results.

“We talked about that after the Friday game [last week], that if we can continue to get the outstanding effort and play as hard as we can that usually we’re going to get rewarded. When you’re playing well, you want to keep playing and we’re starting to get a little more healthy and we should be really healthy coming out of the break. It’s a challenging week with everything going on with finals so we’ve got to be focused.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

For the Colonials, the red-hot top line of Brady Ferguson, Daniel Leavens and Alex Tonge kept rolling following their weekend at Bentley that saw Leavens step up with a three-point game on Saturday including two goals.

But another line was just as critical for the Colonials. The keys to victory include energy and momentum for any team, and the line of freshmen Jacob Coleman, Matthew Graham and Daniel Mantenuto provided spark in both games last weekend and gave the team a lift at critical points.

“I thought Jake Coleman was outstanding this past weekend,” Schooley said. “He provided a lot of energy, he played with passion and created a lot. His line on Saturday with Daniel Mantenuto and Matthew Graham pinned Bentley in their zone, had some really good shifts after killing penalties to get the momentum back and got a really nice goal on Friday. Those are three guys that don’t get a lot of credit but deserve a lot of credit for our victory on Saturday for sure.”

For the Lakers, sophomore Derek Barach leads the way with 17 points in the campaign thus far while forwards Justin Charbonneau and Kyle Dutra on the forward lines. The Lakers also bring Lester Lancaster, a sophomore defenseman who is currently second on the team in scoring.

“Jack Riley has always been difficult to play against,” Schooley said. “He’s physical. He’s got good skill. Their defensman Lester Lancaster is very good offensively and was named rookie of the year I believe.”

GOALTENDING


RMU: It’s anybody’s guess who we’ll see between the pipes on Saturday night And Derek Schooley really can’t go wrong with either candidate. Francis Marotte took his third loss at Bentley last Friday but was a hard luck loser in the effort with several bad bounces. HE still leads the country with a .943 save percentage. Andrew Pikul continued his hot play of late in a 31-save, one-goal against performance in the win on Saturday.

“Andrew is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and he’s making every save he needs to make and some really big ones at that,” Schooley said. “I thought our guys did a tremendous job in front of him on Saturday night and made it fairly easy. He went a little over 155 minutes without allowing a goal. It’s a luxury to have two goalies playing well.”

Mercyhurst: The Lakers have been rotating junior Brandon Wildung and freshman Colin DeAugustine. Wildung comes in with a 3.64 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage while DeAugustine sports a 2.87 GAA and has stopped pucks at a .912 rate. The Colonials are familiar with Wildung who they’ve seen twice thus far, including a playoff win over the Colonials in the 2015 Atlantic Hockey Semifinals.

LAST WEEK
RMU: Earned a road split at Bentley losing by a 4-3 score on Friday while picking up a 4-1 win on Saturday
Mercyhurst: Split on the road at Sacred Heart with a 5-3 win on Saturday while taking a 3-2 loss on Saturday

WHAT TO WATCH FOR


At Stake: For both teams, it’s a chance to go into the break with momentum, and a chance to climb further up in the logjam of the current Atlantic Hockey standings. It’s a four-point weekend for two teams that look to be in the hunt for home ice and a first round bye — given to the top five finishers at the end of the year. An RMU sweep puts them atop the standings while a Mercyhurst sweep puts them ahead of the Colonials in the standings with an equal amount of conference games played.

All Time: The Colonials come into the weekend series with a 6-7-7 record against Mercyhurst including 0-2 in the post season.

Bold Prediction: Both of these teams play some of their best hockey against each other. They bring something out in each other. The hits feel like they have more power, the action seems faster, and the saves more dramatic. They’ve both been getting better as the season has progressed too. Who’s playing the best hockey coming in? Probably Robert Morris by a slim margin.

This basically comes down to how each team handles finals week, and how prepared they are both nights. That being said, going to go out on a limb and call for the RMU sweep as they take a pair of close games with a good chance one of them goes to overtime, if not both.

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