Army (2-1-1, 2-0-0) at Robert Morris (1-2-1, 1-2-1)
Friday and Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
84 Lumber Arena, Neville Twp, PA
Keeping in tune with the rest of the early season Robert Morris schedule that has opened with familiar Atlantic Hockey Playoff foes right off the bat, the Colonials take to their home ice this weekend for the first time in the 2016-17 season. The opponent is yet another stiff conference challenge. The Army Black Knights come into town ready to seek some revenge from their 2015-16 playoff-ending loss to the Colonials, who won the Atlantic Hockey semifinal match up 2-1, ending an Army season that was its strongest in recent memory.
What has changed since the last two times the conference rivals met? For the Colonials, there’s a youth movement coming into place. For the Black Knights, not much has been lost and what remains has solidified into a title contender led by perhaps one of the most underrated goaltenders in the nation, Parker Gahagen. The senior netminder sported a 2.01 goals-against average and .923 save percentage and was the anchor for Army’s deep playoff a year ago.
When the two teams last met in that semifinal game in Rochester, RMU forward Zac Lynch’s overtime goal lifted the Colonials into the final, ending a game that took its toll on Robert Morris both physically and emotionally. Army does that to its opponents with a blend of punishing physical play, keen defensive awareness and a tenacity that is difficult to match. Even after all of that, the opponent still has to put enough pucks behind Gahagen to win. The formula worked last year for the Black Knights and looks to be the battle plan for them this season too.
“He’s a big kid and takes up a lot of net. He makes the first save,” Colonials coach Derek Schooley said regarding Gahagen. “We can’t pass up shots and we have to make sure we get traffic around the net. We have to be able to make him not see the puck and if there are rebounds we have to make sure we put those away.
“We’re just going to have a high compete level and make sure we’re doing things the right way. We need to stay out of that penalty box and we need to improve our penalty kill. We knew that we were going to be inexperienced, we knew that we were going to have to get better as the year went along. And we’re pleased where we’re at. we went to two difficult places to play and took points in both weekends. We need to take points when we’re on the road and hold serve at home and hopefully we’re able to do that this weekend.”
Schooley’s Colonials have done just that, facing some adversity on the road in each of their first two weekends while coming home with three points at RIT and Canisius. However, a season is a progression, and the next step in the young Colonials journey would seemingly be two-fold.
The first thing they need to do is adjustment to the current officiating standard, which has seen a drastic increase in the number of penalties called. The second is to improve an ailing penalty kill that has been below a 70-percent success rate.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
RMU:For the Colonials, Brady Ferguson has been the bread and butter of the forward lines and a one-man wrecking crew with 10 points in the first four games (five goals, five assists).
Outside of Ferguson and linemate Daniel Leavens, sophomore Alex Tonge has been stepped up his game to another level, with a two-goal outing against Canisius on Saturday night, and four goals on the season, all of which have come on the power play. Freshman Matthew Graham got his first NCAA goal this past weekend and has shown that he possesses the skills to be a potential elite forward in the conference.
“We need to make sure that we’re getting production from more than just one or two people,” Schooley said. “We need our freshman to start contributing offensively. And it was good to see Graham get his first goal. We got some really good play and some chances from some of our freshman that just haven’t put the puck in the net yet. We came into the year needing to replace a lot of scoring and we need to replace that with not just one or two guys stepping up.”
Army: Junior forward Conor Andrle has been a pleasant surprise to start the season, netting four goals in four games. He scored a pair in Army’s season-opening 2-2 tie with Colgate.
But it’s far from a one man show at Army these days, and that has perhaps contributed to them becoming a title contender beyond the already steady defense and goaltending. Prior editions of the Black Knights always featured the work ethic any coach would dream of, but the skill factor has taken a large leap forward the last two seasons. Led by speedy forwards Tyler Pham and C.J. Reuschlein and with Clint Carlisle adding scoring depth, this Army attack is as potent as it’s been in years and is a prime example of offense by committee. Army head coach Brian Riley would most likely have it no other way.
RMU: Francis Marotte, freshman (1.69 GAA, .955 sv %)
Army: Parker Gahagen, senior (1.23 GAA, .956 sv %)
We’re not exactly sure who shows up in the net when — injured senior Dalton Izyk did practice this week after being injured at Canisius last weekend — but odds are you’ll see a freshman in the net for the Colonials at least once this weekend.
Francis Marotte has seen action in three games in the early going, and has looked every bit as good as advertised. But the fact that Marotte has displayed a cool, collected and focused demeanor in net beyond his years is a good thing for the Colonials to discover early in the campaign.
“Francis is a very good goaltender and we brought him in here to challenge [Andrew Pikul] and Dalton for potential playing time, and we didn’t know how that was going to play out,” Schooley said. “He makes everything look easy, he sees the puck very well, he handles the puck very well and he takes up a lot of space. We’re surprised the way he’s handled the first couple of games, but then again, we’re not surprised, either, because he’s a quality goaltender.”
For Army, it should be nothing but Gahagen this weekend barring injury or a lopsided score.
RMU: Went 0-1-1 in two games in Buffalo, New York. Suffered a 6-3 loss at Canisius on Friday night and rallied for a 2-2 tie there on Saturday.
Army: Played just one game — on the road at Massachusetts on Friday night — losing 3-2.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
What’s at stake: For Robert Morris, a home sweep would be a nice confidence booster and a potential turning point in the season. For Army, this is a chance to help keep a team that they know might be red hot come February and March underneath their feet come playoff seeding time.
Did you know? Robert Morris forward Alex Dagnal was a teammate of Gahagen’s for two seasons with the Buffalo Jr. Sabres of the OJHL.
All-time: RMU leads the series with a 9-3-4 record, including 3-1 in the Atlantic Hockey ppostseason.
Bold Prediction: I see the Colonials coming out of here with a three point weekend. With the home crowd on their side, and another week of tweaking the penalty kill, working to make it better, Robert Morris should come out more than motivated enough to get the job done. It’s just a case of staying focused, staying out of the penalty box and not getting frustrated when Gahagen starts making save after save on good chances. As long as the Colonials can do those things, they’ll bring the effort necessary to match what Army is doing as far as intensity goes. Colonials tie 2-2 on Friday and win 3-1 on Saturday