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October 27, 2011

Hockey Notebook: Perfect PK, Spartans loom

If there was a moment where the Robert Morris penalty kill would have finally allowed a goal this season, then the second period Saturday night against Quinnipiac would have been a prime contender.

With 5:36 gone in the frame, RMU defenseman James Lyle went off for holding. In the final 14:24 of the period, Robert Morris was shorthanded for a full ten minutes. But they held Quinnipiac to just six shots on five power plays in the frame, withstood two more shorthanded situations in the third period, and ended the game with a perfect penalty kill intact.

"Our penalty kill is excellent and it kept us in the hockey game when we took undisciplined penalties," head coach Derek Schooley said. "That was not indicative of how we've been playing. We've been staying out of the penalty box. It just compounded and snowballed."

Robert Morris is a perfect 23-for-23 on the penalty kill, and it's kept them in games when they otherwise could have been blown out. Of course, it helped that goaltender Brooks Ostergard stopped 38 of 40 shots he faced, and really had no chance on Quinnipiac's second goal of the game. The Bobcats also scored two empty netters.

"I can't ask for anything more. Your best penalty killer is your goaltender and our goaltender was excellent (Saturday night)," Schooley said. "Our penalty killers are good. Tom Brooks got injured and we were down to 11 forwards, and we just kept having to run the same forwards out over and over again. It killed us and we had a lack of energy. When we'd get to five-on-five, we didn't have any energy and we'd take another penalty."

Robert Morris didn't really lose anyone off of the penalty kill from last year, as Lyle, Brendan Jamison, Brandon Blandina, Nick Chiavetta, Furman South, Trevor Lewis, and Ron Cramer have all been logging heavy minutes. They've taken pride in shutting down opposing power plays.

"It feels good, but we've put ourselves in that position too many times," Lewis said. "It hasn't come back and haunted us yet, but tonight we weren't disciplined. We have be a little smarter and stay out of the box."

And, with some offensive firepower in Lewis, Cramer, and South working on the PK, Robert Morris may take an occasional chance to grab a short-handed goal.

"I think with our style on the PK, we like to get the puck deep in their zone and then go attack them," Lewis said. "So I think if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll get some chances to score some shorthanded goals."

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?

Despite a program record 18 wins last year, Robert Morris was relatively inexperienced. Just five seniors graduated the program, but they took with them a ton of games played - not to mention a lot of offense.

That's required some juggling on behalf of the coaching staff in the early portion of the schedule. Players like Trevor Lewis are being asked to take on larger roles on offense, while guys like Adam Brace are now manning the point on the power play.

But other players are also filling in on different lines and taking on new roles. And Schooley said this stretch of non-conference games is crucial for helping the team find out which combinations are going to work.

"We have to get palyers in and get some experience. We tried to play almost everybody this (past) weekend," Schooley said. "We're using non-conference as a chance to get their feet wet, get some games under their belt, and get some people into playing."

Every player on the roster except sophomore goaltender Eric Ferber has played at least once in the first five games. Only two players - freshman forward Cody Wydo and senior defenseman Josh Jones - have played in just one game.

That's led to a lot of line juggling and a lot of shuffling of personnel on the power play and penalty kill. But the exposure now could lead to benefits in Atlantic Hockey league play.

"Those guys that get those opportunities just have to step up and seize the moment if they want to keep playing," Brace said. "We have a lot of guys sitting out that want to play so it's a battle every day."

ONE LAST TEST

This weekend series against Michigan State will be the last major non-conference test for Robert Morris, outside of the annual Pittsburgh College Hockey Showcase game against Ohio State on December 30 at the Consol Energy Center.

"We have a few big games this weekend against Michigan State," Brace said. "Hopefully we can go there, get a couple wins and get better prepared for conference play and the stuff that really matters."

Robert Morris will play ten straight AHA games between the Michigan State series and the Ohio State game, then finish the season with 16 straight league contests.

That means the experimenting referenced earlier may be coming to an end, and the trip to play the Spartans will be looked at as a launching point for the Colonials' conference schedule.

Robert Morris has just seven non-conference games this year. A potential eighth, in the finale of the Maverick Stampede, ended up being against intra-state rival Mercyhurst. The Colonials also played Colgate and Quinnipiac, giving them a good look at teams from a variety of conferences.

"We've definitely played some good teams, some tough teams. The more variety we face, the better off we'll be and a more rounded game we'll play," Lewis said. "I think against them, we'll be able to learn something new from them and then take it into conference play."

Faceoff for both games against Michigan State is at 7:05 Eastern Time in East Lansing.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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