Not too many people had high hopes for Robert Morris when the squad began its inaugural season a few months back, including a certain writer named Brian Coe. Like most of the other college hockey “experts” (yeah, right), I picked the Colonials to finish in last place in the College Hockey America standings.
So it’s likely RMU head coach Derek Schooley took a little extra glee in reminding me of preseason expectations earlier this week.
“I think we’re better than people thought we were going to be,” he said as we sat in his office at the Island Sports Center, “yourself included, probably.”
Ouch … you got me there, coach.
Robert Morris pulled a minor coup last weekend, battling Niagara to a 4-4 tie on Friday, then laying a pounding on the Purple Eagles, 6-0, on Saturday. The big weekend extended the Colonials’ undefeated streak to three games (2-0-1), and upped their record to 2-8-2 in the CHA, 6-14-4 overall. While those are hardly earth-shattering marks, they’re not bad for a club with 22 freshmen.
“I think our team expected this,” Schooley continued. “I like our team right now. I like where we’re at, and I like where we’re going. That’s the neat thing about starting from scratch in a program.
“We set goals, but none of our goals have ever been about wins and losses. I think our players are doing an excellent job, and I can’t say it enough, I’m excited about the future.”
Why not be excited? After all, Robert Morris took its first CHA victory less than two weeks ago in thrilling fashion as Brett Hopfe scored in overtime to down Wayne State 4-3, on the road. Their home series against Niagara saw the Colonials record a tie and a quite convincing win against a team that made an appearance in the NCAA tournament last year.
“We had a great, great weekend. We played really well both nights,” he said, noting that two wins weren’t out of the realm of possibility. “I wouldn’t say we ran out of gas on Friday, but our youthful inexperience at protecting leads came out a little bit. Instead of going after it, we waited for it to happen.”
The Colonials had a 3-1 advantage going into the third period, only to see high-flying Eagles Kris Wiebe (two goals, one assist) and Barret Ehgoetz (one goal, one assist) put on an inspired performance during the final 20 minutes.
“They have some explosive, dynamic players who stepped their games up in the third period,” Schooley stated. “Barret Ehgoetz, Kris Wiebe and Ryan Gale were excellent in the third period, and they accounted for all three of their goals. Don’t take anything away from their comeback. They were a good hockey team in the third period that night.
“Any time you can take three of four points from a team that went to the NCAA tournament last year, you’ve got to be excited about it. We came together as a team Saturday night, we just got it done. I think those are keys and building blocks. We were extremely pleased with our split at Wayne State, and good things are happening for this program.”
Niagara Not Giving Up
The weekend didn’t do anything to help Niagara’s chances of a first-round bye in the CHA tournament. A pair of wins would have put the Purple Eagles within striking distance of second-place Alabama-Huntsville, the team Niagara hosts this weekend.
Funny thing is, the Eagles appeared to have righted their ship on the way to Robert Morris. After dropping seven of nine games between Nov. 19 and Jan. 14, Niagara entered last weekend riding a three-game winning streak.
“We’ve been a streaky team all year, win a couple games in a row, lose a couple games in a row,” said the CHA’s leading scorer, Ehgoetz. “It’s just been up and down. We’ve had some bad times this year, and we’ve got through those. Hopefully we’re picking up things in the second half here. It doesn’t matter how many games you win in October or November, really. Hopefully we get on a little roll going into the tournament.”
“Anything less than making the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment for us,” said Ryan Gale, who had an eight-game scoring streak snapped against Robert Morris and was held scoreless in a series for just the second time this season. “I don’t know if there’s extra pressure, but teams, when they’re playing us, they’re coming harder. They know we were in the NCAA tournament, or we were the CHA champions, so they’re really gunning for us I think.”
The Eagles will have to do a little gunning of their own now. Goaltender Jeff Van Nynatten figured before the Robert Morris tilts that it would take double-digit league victories to sew up the second spot in the league’s regular-season standings.
“We’ve got the standings posted in the locker room, update them every weekend,” said Van Nynatten. “We’re very aware. It’s always been important for us to finish top two.
“If you’re not striving to get top two, then what are you really playing for? You don’t just show up in Minnesota [at the CHA tournament] or wherever and expect to win it. That’s not the right approach to have. Looking at the standings, I figure it will take nine wins to get second, which is doable. I mean we swept all those teams before in the history.”
A home sweep of Alabama-Huntsville this weekend would be a huge boost, not only to the team’s title hopes but to their confidence. No matter where they end up in the standings, though, Ehgoetz believes the road to the NCAA tournament will have to go through Niagara.
“We want to get back there and we want to advance, We don’t want to just win our league and go to the tournament and lose,” he said. “We have our sights set higher. Right now we’re the defending CHA champs. Until that’s lost, we’re still the team to beat I think.”
The Chargers will have a little to say about Niagara’s title chances, though. And after splitting a pair of games against Bemidji State two weeks ago, UAH is in a prime spot to make a run for the regular-season championship. Not that regular-season titles are what the team is after.
“It’s not our number-one goal anymore,” said assistant coach Lance West. “It’s nice. It’s one of our goals. It’s not our top goal, I think winning the tournament is.”
Alabama-Huntsville should be well-rested after a weekend of inactivity. And the Chargers will need all the help they can get down the stretch, as they play four of their final five series of the year on the road.
“I like the weekend off,” West said. “We’ve got that tough stretch at the end with eight games in conference, or six and then the tournament, where we’re on the road. The last month of the season we’re not at home. So it’s to have a weekend off, regroup, fix any small nicks or bangs and heal up. A week off doesn’t hurt you when you’ve played this much hockey.”
You Can Go Home Again
This weekend’s series between Robert Morris and Air Force sees RMU’s Schooley return to his old stomping grounds. He served as an assistant on Frank Serratore’s staff for four seasons before being promoted to associate head coach in 2002-03.
And while it will be nice to see some old faces, Schooley and his team are looking at the cross-country journey as a business trip.
“I spent five years of my life there. I have some very good friends and some great memories. It will be nice to see people, but we’re going there for a purpose,” he said. “We’re not going there to see Pike’s Peak and do touristy stuff. We’re going there to play hockey games, and we have to be focused on that.”
A pair of wins would also move the Colonials out of the CHA basement and ahead of Air Force in the league standings. That’s not something Schooley is concerned with, though.
“We haven’t really talked about it. I’m sure the guys know where we are in the standings, but that’s not what we’re about this year,” the coach said, preferring to look at long term goals. “We’re about getting better every day and improving, building for the future. We’re having some success right now in the present, and that’s a neat thing.
“We just want to continue to get better every day, continue to work hard and continue to do the things that we need to do to be successful. Our game is a work-ethic based game. And the minute we stop working hard is the minute we get in trouble.”
Barret Breaks Another Record
Even though the final scores didn’t fall in Niagara’s favor, Ehgoetz can take a little pride away from Friday’s contest. His game-tying goal with 2:16 to play was his 68th career goal, moving him ahead of Peter DeSantis and into first place on the team’s all-time goal scoring list.
Ehgoetz, who passed Mike Isherwood for first place on the club’s all-time points list earlier this season, is just two behind Isherwood (87 to 89) for the top spot in assists.
The Robert Morris-Niagara series took its toll on both clubs. Jace Buzek, the Colonials’ top scorer this season, was in a sling Thursday after suffering an arm injury during Saturday’s 6-0 victory. Niagara freshman Taylor Simpson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament Saturday, and is out for the remainder of the season.
Bemidji State forward Andrew Murray was held out of last week’s series against North Dakota with a bruised thigh, but the Beavers got the services of Luke Erickson back after only two games. It was originally reported that stress fractures would keep the sophomore out four weeks.