It may have been a Colonials sweep this weekend at 84 Lumber Arena, but if the quality of play and battle level was any indication, the weekend series between Robert Morris and the American International Yellow Jackets hinted at two young teams who are heading in the same direction starting the second half of the Atlantic Hockey stretch run.
On the scoreboard, the Colonials were one goal better in game two of the weekend as freshman forward Matthew Graham provided two goals while the team was able to do all the things necessary to earn the win in a 4-3 victory Saturday night. The win put the Colonials in second place in the conference standings.
“It’s four points on the weekend and obviously that helps us in the standings,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “I thought we were pretty solid tonight. I thought we were really good in the third period, we played in their end, we pushed the pace, we were getting pucks in and doing everything we needed to do to be successful. We were opportunistic, we got some really nice goals from Matt Graham and from Luke Lynch. It was good to see some of the freshman jump in.”
Lynch opened the scoring with his third goal of the season at the 9:06 mark of the first when he took a feed from Brandon Watt and buried it past Yellow Jackets netminder Alex Murray for his third goal of the season. However, unlike Friday night, the Yellow Jackets had answers for Colonials goals as freshman Joel Kocur tied the game with his goal from close range at 2:50 of the second period.
Eric Israel then put the Colonials ahead with his seventh goal of the season at 14;24 of the second with a long shot that found its way through traffic on the power play. Israel managed two goals and three points on the weekend, giving him 20 points on the season. He’s been an integral part of a defensive corps that has come together as a tight unit over the course of the season for Robert Morris.
“We took it to them for most of the game,” Israel said. “They got a couple of fortunate bounces, but overall it was a good weekend. We know we have to play better with Air Force coming up, which is a big weekend for us.”
Graham then went to work, scoring just moments after Israel’s goal to put the Colonials up by two, then came up with the game-winner at 11:17 of the third period when he put a shot from the side into an open net for his fifth goal of the season.
“I was just going to the net and then it went up to Robert at the point and I was trying to get to the net and then a guy put me on my butt and I got back up and Leavens fed me and I had the wide open net,” Graham said. “We have to have two great games against Air Force. We’ve got to play strong in our own zone and we have to finish on our opportunities when we get them, especially on our power play; special teams will be huge that weekend.”
The Yellow Jackets, under first year coach Eric Lang, have proven to be a resilient bunch this season, and a unique team, featuring 13 freshmen, including several European players who have had to acclimate to not only the hockey, but the life that includes being a student overseas. Swedish native Hugo Reinhardt, a freshman forward for the Yellow Jackets, has been part of the new era of American International hockey, and came through on this night with a late second-period goal that provided his team some spark heading into the dressing room between periods two and three.
“We keep practicing hard and keep developing every day and hopefully we’ll win some games soon,” Reinhardt said. “We’re getting better and better, but we’re struggling winning the games. We’re getting along, the freshmen. We live together and we do everything together, we’re a big group of 13 guys, and we’re having a lot of fun.”
The Yellow Jackets have been a work in progress, and although the results haven’t been completely what they’ve wanted, the quality of play has been on the rise. Lang has instilled a sound fundamental approach, and the team has bought into what he’s been teaching.
“Last night we got down 2-0 early with two clear sight-line goals that our goalie normally comes up with and we were kind of chasing the game, but overall I wasn’t disappointed with the way we competed. Tonight, I just thought we were gritty and resilient and kept answering the bell. Not every loss is an ‘F,’ and not every win is an ‘A,’ and I liked the way we competed tonight. There’s stuff for us to hang our hat on. There’s no moral victories. It’s a production business. You either win or lose, but I liked the way our guys battled tonight.
“Something that we talked about since day one was that if we’re going to be more competitive, we’ve got to defend harder and our guys are living it right now. We’ve got great sticks and we take good angles on guys and we’re tougher and harder to play against. We’ve shaved a goal a game off our totals from last year and our shot totals are way down. We’ve been defending harder and asking more of our guys.”
“They’re a good hockey team,” Schooley said. “That team will beat some teams down the stretch. They’re getting better and will be a challenge with the youth they have. I think the good thing is we’re just as young.”
The Colonials will take a weekend off next week, while American International will host RIT in another Atlantic Hockey showdown.
Atlantic Hockey roundup
Air Force 4, at Mercyhurst 2
The Falcons found the net three times on three power plays in the third period Saturday night at Mercyhurst, overcoming a 2-1 deficit after 40 minutes en route to a 4-2 victory. Erik Baskin led the way for Air Force with two goals while Billy Christopolous stopped 20 shots in the victory which gave the Falcons the weekend split in Erie.
Holy Cross 2, Niagara 1
Michael Lafkin’s goal at 10:51 of the third period proved to be the game-winner as Holy Cross downed the visiting Niagara Purple Eagles, 2-1. Niagara goaltender Joe O’Brien stopped 30 of 32 Crusader shots in the loss, which saw Holy Cross complete the sweep. The Crusaders are now tied for fifth in the Atlantic Hockey standings.
Sacred Heart 5, at RIT 1
Pioneers forward Erlich Doerksen’s two goals paced Sacred Heart in a 5-1 win at Rochester on Saturday night. Sacred Heart netminder Brett Magnus stopped 32 shots in the victory. Mitch Nylen put up two assists in the third period for the Pioneers, who found the back of the net three times in the final frame to win going away as Sacred Heard earned the road split for the weekend.
No. 16 St. Lawrence 2, at Canisius 1
Alex Gilmour provided all the offense necessary as St. Lawrence edged the home-standing Canisius Golden Griffins to earn a three-point weekend. St. Lawrence goaltender Arthur Bray stopped 19 Canisius shots in the win, while Canisius netminder Charles Williams turned aside 33 shots from the Saints. Nick Hutchinson scored the lone goal for Canisius.