College Hockey:
Robert Morris holds off Mercyhurst, 3-2

Kushneriuk nets game winner.

— Just win baby.

That was the general attitude for both the Robert Morris Colonials and the Mercyhurst College Lakers on Friday.  And with two huge conference points on the line, the Colonials found a way to get the job done in a hard hitting and entertaining 3-2 victory at the Island Sports Center.

With the win, the Colonials moved five points ahead of the Lakers in the standings, and opened up some valuable breathing room heading into the last handful of regular season games.

“Every point is huge no matter how you get it.” said Colonial head coach Derek Schooley. “It was intense tonight, but it was not a well-played hockey game. We found a way to get this accomplished tonight, but we have to play better tomorrow.”

The Lakers came into the game as the hottest team in Atlantic Hockey with a 6-1-1 record in their last eight conference games, averaging a lofty five goals per game in that span.  And given the recent Laker success, the Colonials came prepared for the type of start that would be necessary.

Just 1:04 into the first period, Colonial forward Trevor Lewis pushed a smooth cross crease pass from Cody Crichton past Laker goaltender Ryan Zapolski for his seventh tally of the season to put the Colonials in the driver’s seat.

The rest of the first frame saw both teams open up their offenses and trade chances for most of the period, with neither side being able to establish consistent pressure in their opponent’s end.

At the same time, both teams decided to pick up the physical battle that was so evident in the first meeting between the conference foes, as players fell to the ice left and right. A case could even be made that the boards might still be vibrating after the final whistle. However, the hitting was clean, and the power play chances would be at a premium for the entire game.

The Lakers tied the contest at 16:37 of the first when forward Mike Gurtler whistled a shot past Colonial net minder Brooks Ostergard from the left circle.  Robert Morris then took the lead back when Adam Brace went to the net and was rewarded with a nifty redirected shot that went past a helpless Zapolski at 19:02. The Colonials finished the period with a 12-7 shot advantage and failed to score on their lone power play of the first.

Just :14 into the second period, the Colonials were given their last power play of the night when Laker forward Ryan Raven went to the box for hauling down Colonial forward Ron Cramer who was close to a breakaway. Many would say that there are good penalties to take, and that this might even be one of them but it turned out to be even better than thought for the Lakers.

Mercyhurst’s penalty kill was something to behold, as they stifled any attempt to breakout with a series of poke checks in neutral ice that kept the Colonials off balance. It was just a matter of time before a rush started the other way, and when it did, Gurter netted his second goal of the night, finishing a shorthanded 3-on-2 rush at 1:33.

The Lakers dodged a huge bullet near the 11 minute mark when Colonial forward Adam Brace was hauled down on a breakaway. Brace was awarded a penalty shot for the effort, but Zapolski kept him off the score sheet and the game remained tied.

Colonial forward Chris Kushneriuk and defenseman Brock Meadows had been two key pieces of the puzzle for their team this season. And both had spent some time on the shelf recently with injuries, but their comebacks couldn’t have been timed more perfectly as they each contributed to key goals in their first game back. Meadows on the second Colonial goal, and Kushneriuk on the game winner as he beat Zapolski at 11:39 with the assists going to Scott Kobialko and Zach Hervato. It was Kushneriuk’s seventh goal of the season, and also his 2nd game winner of the year.

“I’m disappointed that we didn’t have a better outcome,” said Laker head coach Rick Gotkin. “I don’t think we played bad, we just didn’t find a way, I thought our effort was good though.”

From that point on, the game tightened, the stoppages became more frequent, and some sloppiness seeped in. The near playoff-like atmosphere put a new importance on every shift, and with the play slowing down, the Colonials found the way to make all the little plays necessary to close out the contest. Whether it was a blocked shot, or an extra effort to get the puck deeper, Robert Morris seemed to be the team in more desperate need of the two points.

The Lakers pulled Zapolski with just over a minute left, but couldn’t muster a single shot on the net.  When it was all said and done, the Colonials had outshot the Lakers 30-29, and Kushneriuk had earned the games number one star.

The Colonials and Lakers finish their home-and-home series on Saturday night at Mercyhurst.

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