MOON TOWNSHIP, Penn. — Ever since Robert Morris officially joined Atlantic Hockey, there had been a sense of intrigue concerning what rivalries would emerge with their new conference opponents.
The questions about Mercyhurst being a potential rival got answered in part tonight. The Lakers defeated the Colonials, 3-1, in a tense, hard fought conference showdown that gave indications of a potentially fierce rivalry in the making.
Mercyhurst goaltender Ryan Zapolski was a brick wall in the net, stopping all but one of the 51 shots fired his way, and the Lakers found just enough offense to earn their fourth victory in a row.
“We knew that a lot of things were going to have to go well for us to win tonight, that we had to get great goaltending, and had to be opportunistic offensively,” said Laker head coach Rick Gotkin. “I thought Robert Morris took it to us for big stretches of the game and we bent, but we didn’t break. We’re just really happy that we came into a tough rink against an excellent team and were able to come out with two points.”
The bend but not break philosophy employed by the Lakers kept the Colonials frustrated most of the night as Robert Morris rolled up the shots and tilted the ice for most of the game. But Zapolski made the difference, giving up very little in the way of rebounds, and holding the fort in the face of numerous goal mouth scrums.
The Colonials jumped out to the early lead in the first period on defenseman Brendan Jamison’s strong individual effort, as he delivered a big hit and then almost immediately buried a shot from the right wing boards that beat Zapolski clean at the 5:52 mark, the goal was Jamison’s second of his career and the lone assist went to senior forward Scott Kobialko.
The Lakers came into the game with an anemic power play, scoring just three times on 35 chances, yet they made good on their first man advantage of the game when the Colonials missed several chances to clear. Mercyhurst took advantage of the extended zone time when Taylor Holmstrom found the back of the net at 13:46 to knot the score at one. The game opened up after the Lakers tied the score. Both teams were looking to create off the rush in a frenzy of close misses and great saves from Zapolski and Colonials’ net minder Brooks Ostergard.
But even though the chances were coming fast and furious, the twine didn’t dent, and by the start of the second period it was clear that goals were going to be at a premium for the rest of the night. In such a tight game, the logic sometimes dictates that an unexpected bounce could make the difference, and the bounce came at 4:54 of the second, when Laker defenseman Jeff Terminesi unleashed a shot that deflected off Colonial defenseman Even Renwick and past Ostergard to put Mercyhurst in the lead 2-1.
Robert Morris kept the pressure coming for the remainder of the second and the third, outshooting the Lakers 35-10 for the balance of the game, but Zapolski refused to let the Colonials back into the game stopping chances on several odd man rushes.
“Hats off to Zapolski, he was the difference in the hockey game tonight, ” Colonial head coach Derek Schooley said regarding the stellar performance.
Throughout the remainder of the game, the tense moments mounted and the crowd spent the final minutes on the edges of their seats as the Colonials threw the kitchen sink at Zapolski, the atmosphere of the building clearly pointed to an entertaining rivalry developing between the two sides, but to have a really great rivalry, there must be some healthy hatred and the seeds of that were planted in the game’s final moments.
Laker forward Kyle Just iced the game with an empty net goal at 19:48 of the third, but the goal celebration that occurred right in front of the Colonial bench might be remembered as the first shot fired in the battle for Pennsylvania college hockey bragging rights. The Colonials clearly took exception to the Laker goal huddle less than a few feet from them and the ensuing penalty minutes served as a reminder of what could be expected the next time these two conference foes meet.
Schooley offered some final thoughts.
“We just didn’t finish our chances tonight. Sometimes you play poorly and win and sometimes you play well and lose.”
The Colonials travel to Buffalo to take on Canisius on Saturday while the Lakers will host American International next weekend.