(Photo: Melissa Burgess)
The Robert Morris Colonials built on a regular season in which they went 15-3-2 in conference play by capturing the College Hockey America championship on Saturday night.
With their 2-0 win over the Syracuse Orange, Robert Morris captured the CHA conference title and secured their first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament.
In a slight change in format, all six conference teams convened at HARBORCENTER in downtown Buffalo for this year's conference tournament. The top-ranked RMU and Syracuse teams each received byes to the semifinals.
Lindenwood and Mercyhurst kicked things off on Thursday, with the sixth-seeded Lady Lions upsetting the Lakers 3-2. Despite going 3-16-1 in CHA play during the regular season, Lindenwood found themselves securing a spot in the semifinals through Thursday's win.
The RIT Tigers then narrowly defeated Penn State by a score of 2-1, thanks to a late goal by Cassie Clayton. With the win, RIT faced Syracuse in the semifinals.
With both the third and fourth seeds eliminated, it was the top-seeded RMU facing sixth-seeded Lindenwood, and second-seeded Syracuse facing fifth-seeded RIT, in semifinal action.
Lindenwood played a tight game and kept up with the Colonials for much of the game, but they fell just short as RMU won by a score of 2-1. Syracuse easily edged out RIT by a 4-0 margin, holding the Tigers to just ten shots on goal through sixty minutes of action.
With that, it was Robert Morris and Syracuse who faced off in the championship game Saturday, with the Colonials capturing the 2-0 victory and their first berth to the NCAA tournament.
"We came in with the same mindset we do every game," Colonials assistant captain Brittany Howard said. "We played well against Lindenwood and wanted to bring that into today, and I thought we did well."
However, it wasn't an easy one. Syracuse came out with a quick jump and it took nearly five and a half minutes of action for Robert Morris to register a shot on goal.
With 3:10 to play in the first period, the Colonials went up 1-0 on a goal by junior forward Jessica Gazzola. Junior defender Natalie Fraser notched the lone assist, and Robert Morris found themselves up 1-0 after twenty.
"It was a huge momentum shift for us," said defender Kirsten Welsh. "It took us into that next gear, and we stepped ahead."
The Colonials got an insurance goal, of sorts, in the second period. Howard powered through and tapped it in the power play to give Robert Morris a crucial tally. Freshman forward Jaycee Gebhard tallied the lone assist.
With a two-goal lead, Robert Morris simply had to hold on, which is exactly what they did in the third period.
"I just had a lot of confidence in our team," said head coach Paul Colontino. "They stick to what's simple, and stick to our game. They knew exactly what they were going to do and executed and just kept things simple."
"We never really demolish teams in terms of goals, but we get a lead and become very tough to play against," Colontino said. "That's our style; we play defensively, and this group executed it perfectly today."
Colonials captain Rikki Meilleur described the game as a "hard-fought battle," but noted the importance of Robert Morris playing it simple and sticking to their game.
"There's no words to even say how excited we are, especially the seniors, going out on a win like that," she said. "It means everything to us."
Colonials goaltender Jessica Dodds had a 29-save shutout in Saturday's victory. She was named to the All-Tournament Team and also earned the honor of Most Outstanding Player.
"She made some unbelievable saves," Meilleur said. "Those saves turned the momentum our way. We took it, and we wanted to win for her, because she was winning for us."
Colontino echoed those sentiments.
"Jessica Dodds played the best game of her college career in the biggest game of her college career to this day," he said. "She was confident in there...she played phenomenal."
"When we had a breakdown, she came out big," he added. "That's what great goaltenders do in big games."
Dodds noted key factors like moving pucks forward and limiting Syracuse's opportunities as pieces to the victory.
"Knowing that Syracuse is a really good team, being able to respect them and know they're not going to stop, they're just going to come flying right out of the gate," she said, "I had to make sure I controlled my rebounds. I wanted to make sure I controlled the pace of the game."
"I just tried to be there and help my team get in the best position to win a championship today," she said.
While Dodds earned multiple honors in the championship game, she was quick to credit her teammates as a key part of her success.
"There's not a chance I would've been able to do that without them out there," she said. "I'm just very thankful that I have such a great group, and I definitely won't ever forget it for the rest of my life."
In addition to Dodds, Colonials players Howard and Gazzola were also named to the All-Tournament Team. Lindenwood forward Sarah Bobrowski, who had three goals in two games, as well as Syracuse defenders Allie Munroe and Megan Quinn, rounded out the team.
For now, the Colonials will celebrate and enjoy the fruits of their labor, but it's quickly back to business as the NCAA tournament looms ahead.
"We're obviously going to have to prepare mentally and physically for it," Welsh said. "It's going to be a huge weekend, but you know what, the way we're rolling right now, this team's [on fire]; there's not much that's going to be able to stop us."