Team of the Week: Robert Morris
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
On Jan. 1, Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley looked at the Atlantic Hockey standings. The picture he saw reflected a difficult first half for his team. The Colonials had just two wins to show for the season's first three months. Even with the second half of games still to play, RMU needed something to change.
"We came back from the winter break with only two wins," Schooley said. "We decided then and there to focus on only the 2014 portion of our schedule."
The Colonials spent nine days in Connecticut to begin the New Year. Road series at Sacred Heart and Connecticut promised nothing but more challenges. Schooley knew, however, a strong second half was a possibility with a good start during those first two weekends.
"We went into those games looking to go 3-1," Schooley said. "We spent nine days in Connecticut, and it was really good for team building. We got some wins, and it's carried over."
Air Force was the latest victim of Robert Morris' newfound confidence. The Colonials swept the Falcons last weekend to extend their unbeaten run to five games, jumping to fifth in the Atlantic Hockey standings and earning College Hockey News' Team of the Week.
"Anytime you can outwork one of the service academies over the course of weekend, you're doing something right," Schooley said. "I thought we played very on Friday night and earned a thorough win. That carried over to Saturday. We played really well for the most part, and our goaltending held on for us. Anytime you win five of six periods on a weekend, you're happy with the results."
Like Schooley said, RMU sophomore goaltender Terry Shafer's play guided the Colonials through both games. His performance in the second and third periods of Saturday's 5-3 win were especially strong. With RMU leading 4-1 heading into the final 20 minutes, Shafer prepared for an onslaught. The Falcons put 16 shots on goal in the frame. While they managed a pair of goals, Shafer kept his club in front. Brandon Denham's empty-net goal with 33 seconds left in regulation sealed the sweep for RMU, its first at home this season.
Entering the season, Schooley expected goaltending to be an area of growth. Shafer was the loan returner on the roster and had just four games of experience to his credit. In 22 games played, his 3.03 goals-against average doesn't reflect an especially dominant season. However, his .912 save percentage has climbed steadily in the second half.
"We only had four games of experience at the position coming into the season," Schooley said. "Anytime you can give a kid like Terry Shafer time, he's going to improve. He's gotten better for us, and we saw this weekend. Air Force brought it heavily, especially on Saturday, and he kept us in front."
Junior forward Cody Wydo has also lifted his game for RMU since returning from winter break. Wydo erupted earlier this season, scoring seven goals in a two-game stretch against. He scored only two in the remaining seven games of the first half. In eight games this month, he's scored four goals, including RMU's first on Saturday, and added five assists.
Like the rest of his teammates, Wydo's success in the second half came after erasing the memory of a difficult first half. The Colonials aren't out of the hole they dug for themselves just yet, and there will inevitably be slipups along the way. After the sweep of Air Force, RMU is two points out of fourth place in the race for the final bye in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament.
However, Canisius is just a point behind the Colonials, and Niagara is only a point behind Canisius. Prolonged slumps can undo the progress made in January. The parity that's become a reality throughout college hockey makes this success even more difficult to sustain.
"The parity in college hockey is everywhere," Schooley said. "Our league is no different. We know how difficult it is to win in this league. Sweeping a quality opponent like Air Force is a rarity, but we've moved on. The standings board in our locker room only has the 2014 portion of the schedule on it. If we play well in 2014, we'll be where we want to be."
Schooley and his club welcome Army to Island Sports Center this weekend with four more crucial points available. The first half of the season is the ultimate reminder of the penalty for bad weekends and failing to prepare for an opponent. The second half, however, has proved the Colonials just don't make that mistake anymore.