This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Robert Morris beats Cadet Ice Arena mystique with sweep at Air Force

Robert Morris’ Jordan Timmons and Gavin Gulash celebrate a goal during recent Atlantic Hockey play (photo: Justin Berl).

The Air Force home-ice advantage is a mythical piece of Atlantic Hockey lore.

The geographical outlier in the conference is nestled more than 7,000 feet above sea level, and the very real impact of Cadet Ice Arena and its legendary altitude enabled six consecutive seasons with nine regular seasons in league play.

That changed three years ago when the Falcons finished under .500 in home Atlantic Hockey games, and almost every team in the conference won there even though the program bounced back with eight and seven wins, respectively, over the last two.

Only two teams left Cadet Ice Arena over that stretch without a point.

This weekend, one removed its name from the list when Robert Morris swept Air Force in Colorado Springs.

“I thought we played pretty well,” RMU coach Derek Schooley said. “I thought we were prepared to play. We handled adversity well throughout the weekend, and we were ready to go. It was a challenging week for us to play (five games in two weeks), and to travel cross-country, I’m proud of how our guys handled it. From the drop of the puck both nights, we were ready, and we had a good weekend.”

The road wins fixed one of the few potholes in the Colonials’ decade-long road of success. It snapped an eight-game overall winless streak against the Falcons and won Robert Morris’ first game at Cadet Ice Arena since 2017.

It also marked the first road sweep in Colorado since the 2015-16 season and secured first place with six points towards the Atlantic Hockey table with the best goal differential against the cadets since that plus-4 sweep during the 2014-15 season.

The team dominated with a 4-1 victory on Friday night but displayed a very different brand of success in Saturday’s 4-2 win. Four different goal scorers opened the weekend, and the team’s two goals in the third period occurred within 14 seconds of one another to open a 4-0 lead. The Falcons responded with one before the game ended, but freshman goalie Noah West otherwise slammed the door with his defense for his first career win after he debuted the weekend before against Canisius.

“We have three good goaltenders, and all three guys started over our seven games,” said Schooley. “Noah was calm. Did he make a freshman mistake or two? Yes, he did, but his save percentage was high, and he got two wins. That’s what you judge goaltenders on – save percentage and wins. Our guys played well in front of Noah, and he mixed in a few big ones as well.”

It contrasted with Jordan Timmons’ Saturday night special the next night when he singlehandedly staked RMU to a 3-0 lead in the first period. He scored in the game’s first minute before adding two power play goals before the halfway point to register a natural hat trick, the first such accomplishment for the Colonials since 2013.

Air Force’s Jake Levin scored before the intermission, and it buoyed the Falcons into the second. They evened out after being outshot 12-3 in the first, and Thomas Daskas’ first career goal brought them back within one by the locker room break. But the Colonials again slammed the door when Justin Addamo scored on the power play to stake a 4-2 lead into a two-game sweep.

“Air Force put a push on at the end of the second period,” Schooley said. “So I challenged our group to have our best period of the weekend in the sixth period and our 15th period in eight days. I challenged (the players), and they responded well. We extended the lead and played well with the lead. We got very good goaltending from a freshman goaltender in Noah West, and we played the game the right way.”

RMU flew home with six points and first place in the Atlantic Hockey table, but the Colonials succeeded on an all-important road trip this season.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the league into a creative format in order to limit travel, and it abandoned a traditional schedule in order to avoid overnight trips whenever possible. Ten of the conference’s 11 teams broke into two distinct divisions based on geography, and each division slotted five games against the other four teams.

Air Force was the lone exception without a division, but the Falcons scheduled two games either at home or on the road against each of the other 10 teams. It gave each team 22 league games at the start of the year while working around the geographical outlier, but Robert Morris was the first team to travel to Colorado under the format.

This is currently the only weekend for the Colonials featuring a flight and an overnight stay, and the two wins are equally as important to the team’s future goal as it is to the present game success.

“We know that we have to put wins up and get off to a good start because you don’t know if your next games are going to happen,” Schooley said. “It’s not just your team. You have to worry about the other team, and to put up three league wins (in four games) is big for us. We have a challenge coming up this weekend against Niagara, another team that’s had our number as of late, but we’re excited to play every game.”

The one with the bad ending

Saturday night’s game between Niagara and RIT was nearly an instant classic for all the right reasons.

It had a little bit of everything — the Purple Eagles built a 3-0 lead in the first period before the Tigers stormed back to cut it to 3-2 after two. Andrew Petrucci’s sixth career goal completed the comeback in the third, and neither team took a penalty over a full, 60-minute game. It felt like a playoff game even before both teams earned their single regulation standings point with a three-period tie.

What happened after that turned the game into an instant classic for all the wrong reasons.

First came Niagara’s near-winner in the 3-on-3 overtime period. Defenseman Croix Evingson split goaltender Logan Drackett and forward Kobe Walker with a silky dangle, and the puck slid past Drackett into the back of the net. It touched off a wild celebration on the Niagara bench, but referees Chris Ciamaga and Donald Jablonski Jr. overturned the call upon review.

Seconds later, RIT’s Jake Hamacher drew the game’s first penalty when a wild collision with Niagara’s Walker Sommer and goaltender Chad Veltri sent bodies into the cage and dislodged the net with authority.

Nobody scored on that powerplay, and the expiration of overtime sent Atlantic Hockey into its first three-round shootout. Niagara’s Ludwig Stenlund scored first, and an RIT miss gave the Purple Eagles a clear 1-0 advantage as the second shooters readied themselves.

And then the officials declared the game over.

Everything sort of spiraled from there. Niagara jubilantly exited down its tunnel, but an angry Wayne Wilson pleaded his case with RIT officials. They produced the rulebook and correctly proved their case to both referees, who then walked to the visitors’ locker room to retrieve the Purple Eagles. The delay promptly produced two Niagara misses and two RIT goals, and the turn of events handed the second standings point to the Tigers.

It was surreal to watch, even on replay, and there’s no denying the incorrectness of the call. It led to an unenviable and possibly inconceivable walk into Niagara’s dressing room to get the team back on the ice, and it occurred after a series of events I still don’t entirely understand. The shootout was bizarre, and the blame, rightfully so, wound up on the officials after they applied last year’s one-and-done rule.

It was a really, really bad mistake, and there’s no real way around it. A baseball coach once explained how umpires call hundreds of successful pitches and plays per game, but the wrong ones always stick out. It too often paints a broad stroke over the individual and the profession when it shouldn’t.

I might just be softer in my old age, but I feel the same way here. Chris Ciamaga officiated Minnesota Duluth’s win over Providence at the 2019 Final Four, and I repeatedly make it a point to call out good jobs on air. It’s happened more and more frequently over the past five to six years. This just wasn’t their finest hour, to say the least.

Silver lining, though. I guess we all know the rule now.

How ‘bout some numbers?

This season is particularly difficult to statistically predict for obvious reasons this year, but it didn’t stop me from mining a special teams nugget comparing Atlantic Hockey to other leagues.

AHA programs are a combined 21 for 114 on the power play this year with every team scoring at least one goal except for Army West Point and Niagara. The only team with more than two goals is Robert Morris, which is operating at an absurd 26.7 percent with eight goals, but the balance between the power play and penalty kill is an early season delight.

Compare that to how UMass anchors Hockey East’s 12 percent with a 6 for 27 success rate or how Bowling Green and a Division I-leading Alabama Huntsville are pacing the WCHA. The Big Ten has a clear advantage over Atlantic Hockey, but that’s because Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota are a combined 22 for 76, but the NCHC is right in line with the AHA at a crisp 19 percent.

Games of the Week

The usual college hockey holiday break won’t happen this year even with the World Junior Championship lurking around the corner at Christmas, and this weekend continues the season with a couple of pretty notable matchups.

— RIT will host LIU in the Sharks’ first games against a western division team. Their games last weekend against AIC were postponed, but they will face a Tiger squad still riding its high after taking five points from Niagara.

— Niagara plays Robert Morris in the first meeting between two preseason favorites. The Purple Eagles swept the Colonials last season at Dwyer Arena in the last weekend of the regular season, but they haven’t been swept by their former CHA rivals since the last weekend of the 2016-17 season.

— Mercyhurst’s Hank Johnson made 86 saves last weekend in his debut performances for the Lakers and earned his first victory of the season with an opening night win over Bowling Green. This week, Mercyhurst hosts Clarkson for a pair in Pennsylvania before hosting Niagara on Wednesday.

— Sacred Heart has two early week games scheduled against in-state rival Quinnipiac on Monday and Tuesday. They are the first games of the season for the ECAC’s Bobcats, who lost the Connecticut Ice championship to the Pioneers, 4-1, last season.

— Former Army West Point assistant coach Eric Lang hosts Brian Riley and the Black Knights on Tuesday. The teams split four games last year, but the Yellow Jackets’ last win came in the final game of the regular season.

— The U.S. National Under-18 has a pair of games out at Air Force over the weekend, but the real winner there is the United States of America’s hockey culture.