(Photo: Robert Morris Colonials)
After falling in the College Hockey America championship game three straight years, the Robert Morris Colonials have finally reclaimed the league's title. In 2021, the key to victory was a strange, high bouncing puck coming off the end boards and an open player in front of the net finding just the right spot. As it turned out, that goal by junior defender Gillian Thompson was exactly what the team needed to secure their first CHA tournament since 2017 with a 1-0 win over the Syracuse Orange.
"As a defenseman, I like to join the rush," Thompson said. "I saw Maggy [Burbidge] joining in. She was coming down the right side wing with the puck, and... I thought she was going to pass it to me. It couldn't have been more perfect, the way it bounced – it just bounced right behind the net and kicked out right to my stick and I just put it in. It all happened so fast."
Thompson's goal, which came 7:27 into the first period, held up as the game-winning goal in a closely-battled contest filled with great end-to-end action. The teams had chances back and forth over the course of sixty minutes and both put up strong defensive efforts, but Syracuse could never find the equalizer.
Robert Morris, the #3 seed heading into the tournament, bumped off RIT and Mercyhurst en route to the championship. Saturday's game marked their fifth straight appearance in the CHA championship and sends them to the NCAA tournament for the second time in program history.
"We've had a tough go in CHA finals, and I think we just came out with that in our mind," Burbidge said. "We just didn't want to lose and I think that was the difference. We were gritty, we got pucks deep and we got lots of opportunities. Syracuse played well, but at the end of the day, we had that motivation."
Goaltending was also a key part of Saturday's championship tilt, for both teams. Raygan Kirk returned to the net for the Colonials after missing a few weeks and put up a 36-save shutout. At the other end of the ice, Allison Small delivered a strong performance and recorded 34 saves. Small was named to the All-Tournament Team.
Thompson was also named to the All-Tournament team, alongside teammates Ellie Marcovsky and Lexi Templeman. Syracuse's Jessica DiGirolamo rounded out the selections, while Burbidge was named Most Outstanding Player. She scored the overtime game-winner in Friday's semifinal and had two goals in the quarterfinal.
For the Colonials, it's a perfect segue to the NCAA Tournament in the midst of a strange season, both in hockey and in life.
"We played every game like it was our last, which it could have been," Burbidge said. "We never took a game for granted... I think we worked the hardest we did this year. We never took a practice for granted and I think it really showed out there. Our conditioning was strong. We were all over the ice and it's definitely a lot sweeter to win under the circumstances."
"This year in its entirety, not only for our team but for all student-athletes, it's been a very different and at times difficult year to navigate," said Colonials head coach Paul Colontino. "To see the student-athletes, and us in particular, our players rewarded for all their hard work... what our student-athletes are battling through right now is just exceptional."
"To get there once is hard enough," he added. "To get there this weekend is hard enough. To keep doing that, and keep creating an opportunity to win a championship... our locker room is awesome and we're just so proud of them. You like to say you could win them every year, but it's hockey, it's college hockey, and we've got a heck of a league here. The games are tight and it's anybody's game any given day. Today it looks like it was ours."
Although the loss frustrated Syracuse head coach Paul Flanagan, he had nothing but positive comments about his team's effort and resilience over the course of the season:
"The kids show up on campus in late August, and I really felt at that point, there's no chance we're playing hockey this year, much less attend class. Who knew what was going to happen?
We're not champions here tonight, but I'll tell you, the last six months, our kids did what they had to do. I spoke about our freshmen coming off a terrible experience, I think, for grade twelve, and now all of a sudden you finally get to college and you're basically stuck in an apartment, doing classes online. No one complained.
We had great leadership. It was a little give and take in terms of our older kids trying to get the younger ones to buy in to what we had to do to maintain COVID [safety]. We never had a single positive test this whole year, not one. We were the only team in the league that did that. For some reason, we played the least number of games in the league, because other teams cancelled on us.
From my perspective, there's life lessons in everything. Tonight's loss, what we've gone through the last six months and how these kids handled themselves... Everyone is struggling with this, but the way these kids handled themselves, it was unbelievable and I can't commend them enough.
In a way, they're champions in my mind just for how we got through this and how we maintained this. I think we learned a lot of life lessons."
Thursday's quarterfinals saw Robert Morris defeat RIT, while Syracuse bested Lindenwood. The Colonials showcased their energy and offensive skill in Thursday's 4-0 victory, surging off a pair of goals from Burbidge in the win. Marcovsky and Marah Wagner also scored, while Robert Morris outshot RIT by a decisive 50-17 margin.
Syracuse easily brushed off Lindenwood, as six different players scored in the 6-0 win. Victoria Klimek, DiGirolamo, Abby Moloughney, Rayla Clemons, Mae Batherson, and Brynn Koocher all scored, while goaltenders Small and Amelia Van Vliet had a combined 29 saves.
Feeding off the energy of their respective shutouts, Robert Morris and Syracuse powered through their semifinals on Friday. Penn State and Mercyhurst received byes to the semis, but it didn't do them any good as the Colonials defeated the Lakers and the Orange beat the Nittany Lions.
Syracuse managed to hold on for a narrow 3-2 win over Penn State. Madison Beishuizen opened the scoring late in the first period, before Anna Leschyshyn doubled their lead early in the middle frame. Emma Polaski made it 3-0, but Penn State came out strong in the third period to try and rally back. Olivia Wallin had both goals for the Nittany Lions, but they were ultimately unable to complete the comeback.
The Colonials reached the championship thanks to an overtime victory over Mercyhurst. The teams exchanged special teams goals early on, as Marcosky had a shorthanded tally and Alexa Vasko scored on the power play. Grace Nelles gave the Lakers the lead midway through, but Michaela Boyle tied it early in the third. Burbidge recorded the game-winning tally on a delayed penalty call, capitalizing on a second opportunity after Lakers netminder Ena Nystrøm was unable to recover from the initial shot.
After defeating Syracuse, Robert Morris will now prepare for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Like the CHA Tournament, the Frozen Four is also being played in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The NCAA tournament selection will be streamed tonight on NCAA.com at 9:00 PM Eastern.