RMU Hockey: Three Rivers Classic Presents Huge Opportunity For Colonials


RMU coach Derek Schooley (center, back) directs his team in a game earlier this season. The 19th-ranked Colonials can further boost their national standing at the annual Three Rivers Classic. (Photo: Jason Cohn/RMU Athletics)

PITTSBURGH – Life in the Atlantic Hockey Conference has been kind to Robert Morris University over the past year, but the Colonials need to take advantage of their non-conference schedule in order to maximize their chances for a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.

Such are the stakes for the upcoming Three Rivers Classic, a two-day college hockey showcase at Consol Energy Center that features Robert Morris, Penn State, Colgate and Western Michigan.

The first three of those teams are ranked in the USCHO top 20, giving this event its strongest field in three years of existence. The tournament format remains the same, with two preliminary-round games Monday (Colgate-Western Michigan and RMU-Penn State) and two more Tuesday to determine this year’s champion.

“It’s an opportunity for us to play some very high level teams,” said RMU head coach Derek Schooley. “It’s always good to face some teams you don’t see on a regular basis. We’ve done well in our league, but this is a chance to see how we fit amongst the rest of the nation.”

Adding to the challenge for the 19th-ranked Colonials: they have just a couple post-holiday practice days to reclaim the first-half form that produced a 11-2-3 record entering Monday night’s matchup with No. 20 Penn State. Faceoff is set for approximately 7:35 p.m., depending on how long it takes to decide the opening game.

Although shaking off break-related malaise can be a process, the extra adrenaline that comes with skating in an NHL arena should help.

“It’s a matter of getting your legs under you and being prepared to play,” Schooley said. “Our guys have played in big buildings and in front of big crowds. We’ve done a lot to prepare our guys for these kinds of events.”

The Colonials have doubled down on last spring’s conference championship by posting a 9-2-3 Atlantic Hockey record that has them in first place entering the season’s second half. Because of its unprecedented success, RMU has been ranked in six of the past seven weekly USCHO polls.

But winning in league play and getting love from the voters may not be a potent enough combination to get the Colonials into the NCAAs once mid-March rolls around. If RMU can’t repeat last year’s run to an Atlantic Hockey postseason title, its postseason fate will be at least partially at the mercy of a metric called Ratings Percentage Index, or RPI.

Much like in other Division I sports, the NCAA selection committee uses RPI to help determine which teams will receive at-large tournament berths. In men’s hockey, six out of 16 postseason spots are automatically given to the playoff champions of the six conferences: Atlantic Hockey, Hockey East, the NCHC, the WCHA, the ECAC and the Big 10.

If RMU doesn’t raise the AHC trophy in Rochester this March, it will need to seize opportunities to boost its RPI ranking, which currently stands at No. 21. A win against Penn State (16th in RPI) on Monday night would provide a boost, as would getting a result against Colgate (20th) if things match up that way for Tuesday.

RMU’s only non-conference action to date came against Lake Superior State in early October. The Colonials swept that two-game series, but with Lake State floundering at 3-17 this season, those wins don’t count for much in RPI terms.

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That means the Three Rivers Classic – and next week’s home-and-home against nationally-ranked Bowling Green – is a great chance for the Colonials to prove their strength. RMU senior forward David Rigatti is confident his team will bring its best game to the home of the NHL’s Penguins.

“We can compete with any team in the nation, no matter what conference or where they are in the standings,” said the Peters Township native, one of two Pittsburghers on the RMU roster, along with junior forward Zac Lynch. “We’re not invincible, but anyone can beat anyone in Division I hockey.”

Robert Morris’ emergence on the college hockey scene certainly adds to the cachet of the Three Rivers Classic. The Colonials claimed the first such event two years ago on their way to a program-record 20-win season, while national power Boston College grabbed the trophy with a dominating performance last December.

This season, RMU could be considered a co-favorite for the tournament title. Led by senior winger and Hobey Baker Award hopeful Cody Wydo (11 goals, 14 assists) and six other double-digit point scorers, the Colonials are the only team in Division I to average more than four goals per game (4.12) during the fall semester.

They’re also controlling the action better than recent Colonials teams. RMU is in the top third of college hockey in goals-against average (2.31) and middle of the pack in shots on goal per game (30.5), both of which are considerable improvements over last season. The impressive duo of junior Terry Shafer (.919 save percentage) and sophomore Dalton Izyk (.931) have shared the work in net, each getting eight starts to this point.

“We want to make sure we do things the right way,” Schooley said. “We made the NCAA tournament last year and tried to play wide open, but you can’t do that against good teams. We made a conscious effort to be better defensively (this year) and work hard in our own end and as you can see, the offense hasn’t missed a beat.

“We preach to our guys that we can be good defensively and the offense will take care of itself.”

Penn State (9-4-2) enters the tournament on a high, as well. The Nittany Lions are merely in their third year of Division I play, but they have the early lead in the Big 10 standings with a 3-1 conference record. They also boast a potent offense themselves, with a top-10 goal output (3.47 per game) and the most on-target shots in the nation (39.6).

“They’re a really good hockey team,” said Schooley of Penn State. “They’ve taken a lot of steps of their first 2 1/2 years as a program. They’ve brought in some high-end players that you have to be aware of.”

On the other side of the Three Rivers Classic bracket, Schooley’s alma mater Western Michigan has built an impressive track record under former NHL bench boss Andy Murray, while Colgate has been a top-20 team all year, in addition to being RMU assistant coach Matt Nicholson’s place of matriculation.

“It’s going to be an exciting tournament with a lot of side stories,” Schooley said. “College hockey is growing in this area and we’ll put a good product out there.”