was playoff hockey at its finest Saturday night at 84 Lumber Arena, as Robert Morris University advanced to the Atlantic Hockey Conference semifinal round with a rollicking 6-3 triumph over Niagara in Game 2 of its best-of-three quarterfinal series.
Pittsburgh’s own Zac Lynch broke a 3-all tie with his second goal of the game, a shorthanded breakaway goal 4:30 into the third period that jumpstarted a three-goal final frame for the Colonials. Top-seeded RMU won 4-2 in Friday’s series opener to shove Niagara to the edge of elimination.
In completing the two-game sweep, 20th-ranked RMU (24-7-5) will travel to Rochester, N.Y., next weekend to continue its quest for back-to-back postseason AHC titles. Getting through longtime rival Niagara (7-28-4) was the furthest thing from easy, even though the Purple Eagles finished last in the 11-team league during the regular season.
“We knew it would be a battle,” Lynch said. “We just stuck to it and got it done. There were a lot of emotions high and low out there, but this team fights through anything. No matter what, we know we can get the job done because we have guys with experience in those situations.”
About three minutes after Lynch’s program-record-tying sixth career shorty gave RMU its third lead of the night, fellow junior Greg Gibson pushed Niagara over the falls with a dazzling move of his own, dangling through the defense and stashing a backhand behind Purps goalie Jackson Teichroeb from the slot.
“Usually (on that play) you cut to the middle and get hammered,” Gibson said with a laugh. “My legs felt good tonight and I was just shooting pucks, using my speed and getting to the dirty areas of the ice.”
Gibson’s insurance tally was his second of the game and his seventh in the past six games; he has 11 of his 15 goals in RMU’s past 13 outings. The Ontario native looks to be bettering his red-hot performance late last season, when he buried nine in 15 games to help RMU clinch its first league crowd and NCAA tournament berth.
This year, the Colonials are two wins away from repeating that feat. They will face whomever wins Game 3 of the ongoing quarterfinal series between Bentley and Mercyhurst on Friday at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena.
“I thought our energy was good coming off the (first-round) bye,” head coach Derek Schooley said. “It was an emotional game, different from last night. We were really good in the first period, but I thought we took a big dip in the second period, but we were good in the third.
“We’ve been doing it all year. When you win 24 games, you find a lot of ways to win.”
After one last successful penalty kill – the Colonials went 5 for 5 in that aspect of the game – David Friedmann polished off the satisfying win with an empty-net goal at 17:08. With the victory, RMU stretched its home unbeaten streak to seven games (6-0-1) and finished the season at 14-3-2 on Neville Island.
Saturday’s affair could’ve been more routine for Atlantic Hockey’s top seed, but a two-goal Niagara rally in the second period erased an effective first frame for RMU, which got goals from Gibson, Lynch and Scott Jacklin in the opening 20 minutes to construct a 3-1 lead.
Despite their middle-period mistakes, the Colonials proved resilient in the third, giving the final home crowd of the season another night to remember. They outshot the Purple Eagles 44-33 for the game and piled up a season-high 30 blocks, a signature for this team that ranks first in NCAA Division I in that category. Junior forwards Brandon Denham and Lynch tied for the team lead with five blocks each, while sophomore defenseman Rob Mann got in front of four.
RMU’s overall edge in play was driven by special teams, as it went 2 for 5 on the power play and allowed just two shots on goalie Dalton Izyk on five penalty kills. Izyk made 30 saves to improve to 7-0 in the AHC postseason; dating back to last March’s successful run, the sophomore from Oswego, N.Y., has stopped 230 of 245 shots he’s faced in the playoffs, good for a sparkling .939 save percentage.
“He wins,” said Schooley of Izyk, who has started four straight games after splitting time evenly with junior Terry Shafer over the first five months of the season. “He was solid. It may not always be the prettiest, but he finds ways to win games.”
For the third straight game – all against Niagara – RMU struck for the first goal. The Colonials netted their third deflection goal of the series just 3:33 into Game 2 when Gibson redirected John Rey’s right-point drive under Teichroeb.
But just like Friday night, the Purple Eagles had a response. After each side misfired on a power play, Niagara equalized on a scramble around the net. After Izyk stopped Keegan Harper’s point shot and Dan Kolenda’s rebound try, Hugo Turcotte slid the loose puck inside the right post for a 1-1 score at 14:10.
That’s when the RMU power play took over. Niagara’s T.J. Sarcona and Chris Lochner each took minor penalties a minute apart, giving the Colonials a huge opportunity to seize control of the game. They did just that with a pair of power-play goals in the span of 1:10.
Lynch lit the lamp first at 18:24, taking a smooth cross-crease pass from Jacklin and beating an extended Teichroeb from a sharp angle to the left of the goal. Then, with Lochner’s penalty still on the board, Wydo threaded a feed from the bottom of the right circle to the top of the crease, where Jacklin steered it in for his second goal of the series.
“As soon as one guy gets going, the other guys feed off it,” Lynch said. “We like to get the momentum early and go from there.”
RMU’s two-goal cushion was sliced in half 1:46 into the second period when Niagara defenseman Matt Chiarantano wired a perfect shot into the roof of the net after collecting a rebound near the left corner.
That strike sobered the Island Sports Center crowd, and Niagara kept its energy up after a successful penalty kill, parlaying it into the tying goal with 9:05 gone in the second. Harper, another Purple Eagles blueliner, did the honors this time, ripping a low slapper that found twine through a screen.
“We were unwilling to advance pucks like we did in the first and third,” said Schooley of the second-period letdown. “Going against a team that’s played its sixth game in nine days, you want to make them come 200 feet. You want to make them expend energy, but we gave them some life.”
The door swung open for RMU to take control late in the second, when Niagara once again found itself down two men after Chiarantano’s boarding penalty while shorthanded. This time, though, the Colonials couldn’t convert, and Tyson Wilson was forced to hook down Derian Plouffe as he escaped the box.
With the Colonials shorthanded early in the third, Lynch tipped a Niagara pass out to center ice, taking advantage of a flat-footed Purple Eagle to soar in alone on Teichroeb. Lynch elected to hold onto the puck and stuff it past Teichroeb on a smooth forehand deke, tying him with Wydo for the program’s all-time lead in shorthanded goals.
“They had been looking for the high guy at the point all night and I was kind of baiting them,” said Lynch of his 16th goal of the season. “I was able to get a good stick on it and luckily made a good enough move to squeak it in.”
After Gibson similarly brought the house down to make it 5-3, the Colonials could start thinking about Rochester, the site of their greatest triumphs last spring. RMU topped this same Niagara team in the semifinals during that journey, then dispatched Canisius to raise the trophy.
“That was just playoff hockey, that was a lot of fun,” Gibson said of Saturday’s win. “It’s great to win and get to Rochester, but we don’t want to get there and lay an egg. Hopefully we can win two more games and get the championship.”