All-around contributions for men’s hockey lead to quarterfinals matchup with Niagara

Men%27s+hockey+celebrates+a+regular-season+win+over+Niagara%2C+looking+to+do+the+same+this+weekend.+Photo+Credit%3A+Nathan+Breisinger

Men’s hockey celebrates a regular-season win over Niagara, looking to do the same this weekend. Photo Credit: Nathan Breisinger

By Nathan Breisinger, Social Media Director

NEVILLE, TWP– After taking down Holy Cross in the first round of the 2020 Atlantic Hockey Tournament, the Robert Morris men’s hockey team would not step on the ice for another eight months. Their impending quarterfinals series with Sacred Heart would cease to exist, and the Colonials would see their hard work washed away by a global pandemic.

Nearly a year later, the men’s hockey team is primed for a quarterfinals matchup with the Niagara Purple Eagles. Returning for their first postseason action in over a year, the Colonials used the canceled playoffs as inspiration throughout the regular season.

“[There] was a lot of unfinished business going into the summer, so I think that motivated guys to get out, work hard and try to do something special this year,” senior co-captain Nick Jenny said.

Robert Morris used that fuel from last season to begin this year with their best start in program history as they tied their highest national ranking in the USCHO at no. 17. With a season plagued by COVID-19, the Colonials saw a span of seven games in 13 days at one point and only two games in a month at another. Through all of that, the men’s hockey teams still finished with a 10-5-1 conference record, clinching first place in the Western Division.

“It’s been a challenging year,” senior co-captain Nick Prkusic said. “Coming down the stretch, any chance we had to play games, we were excited to play and got up for every game because you never knew when a game was going to be taken.”

Compared to last season, the Colonials saw a drastic improvement in their scoring ability. During the season, RMU registered 3.76 goals per game, up from a meager 2.27 goals per contest a year ago. Head coach Derek Schooley credits that uptick in production to the capabilities of all four lines to score.

“We have got a tremendous amount of depth,” Schooley said. “We were able to withstand some injuries, and our depth has been very good.”

Not only did the offensive production increase during five-on-five play, but the power-play upgraded its potency. The Colonials were 13.8-percent on the man-advantage a year ago, enhancing their unit this season with a 25-percent conversion rate.

With the power-play stepping up over the 21-game campaign, Jenny quarterbacked the first unit from the top of the umbrella as he attributes a lot of the success to assistant coach Ryan Durocher.

“In years past, we were close, we were just not burying our chances,” Jenny said. “This year, you’re seeing that when we get a chance, we’re putting the puck in the back of the net. Ryan Durocher came in and has done a great job breaking down video, letting us know what our gameplan is, and we are executing right now.”

Along with the veteran scoring from the likes of Prkusic, Aidan Spellacy, Grant Hebert, among others, the team has seen an overwhelming presence from the incoming recruiting class on the team.

Offensively, Randy Hernandez leads the team with ten goals, while other freshmen like Matt Guerra, Kyler Head, and Gavin Gulash have all contributed to the forward success.

“We needed them to come in and step up, and they have done a heck of a job,” Prkusic said. “They have been great in the locker room adapting with what we want to do this year and accomplish.”

Along with the freshmen who have stepped in and shown their offensive prowess, junior transfer Jordan Timmons was a significant addition to the team, providing a boost in scoring. Through his first ten games, Timmons potted eight goals, which was near the top in the nation, but would then be sidelined for the rest of the season due to injury.

On the blue line, the Colonials were also bolstered by freshmen Brian Kramer and David Lafrance, who join veterans Brendon Michaelian, Nolan Schaeffer, and Jenny. While the defensive corps played solid in front of their netminders, they also have their fair share of influence on the offense.

“The defense has been solid breaking pucks out and getting it to the forwards,” Jenny said. “We contribute on the blue line, and it’s been great because we have struggled in years past to get goals from the back end, but we have taken a step in that criteria.”

While the offense has been clicking on all cylinders this season, the goaltending performance should not be ignored. As a freshman, Noah West has recorded eight wins, along with a .913 save percentage and one shutout. When West is not in the cage, senior Dyllan Lubbesmeyer has been strong as well, posting five wins of his own.

“You can see they battle in practice for the starting position, but the guys know whoever’s in net for the night is going to play their heart off,” Jenny said.

As Robert Morris has found contributions up and down their roster, the Colonials have not seen game action in 18 days after their senior day against Mercyhurst was canceled. Due to the extended time off, the Colonials have focused on the basic areas of their game in preparation for the playoffs.

“We almost went back to day one, and we looked at everything we need to do in the offensive zone, neutral zone, defensive zone, power play, pk, and just fine-tuning those things,” Prkusic said.”

Due to Robert Morris’ regular-season success, the Colonials received a bye in the first round of the playoffs as they would then watch their next opponent move on after defeating Mercyhurst. All eyes now turn towards the Niagara Purple Eagles.

Niagara finished with a 3-9-3 record in the conference as they look to spark their own postseason magic. The Purple Eagles are led by junior forward Walker Sommer, who registered a team-high 13 points on the season. Looking to upset the Colonials, the Purple Eagles will bring an underdog mindset into the home of the Western Division champions.

Robert Morris swept the season series against the Purple Eagles, outscoring the squad 20-9 in their most lopsided series output of the year.

With the Purple Eagles coming to town, the Colonials hope to maintain their high-flying approach as they look to make a deep run in the postseason with the end-goal of an Atlantic Hockey championship.

“We’ve had six straight years of going to Atlantic Hockey final four, and we want to continue that run,” Schooley said. “To be able to win a playoff championship, we have to get to the final four, so we have to make sure we are prepared this weekend and take it one game at a time. Everybody’s goal right now in the playoffs is to win a championship.”

Robert Morris will commence postseason play with a best of three-game series starting Friday at 7:05 against Niagara at Clearview Arena.