PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — During the latest effort by the NHL to avoid history of the wrong kind, hockey did return to CONSOL Energy Center Friday night, and now Robert Morris has an opportunity to echo history of the right kind.
An aggregate crowd of 11,663 watched the Colonials extend their unbeaten streak to 4-0-2 with a convincing 6-0 win over Penn State in the opener of the inaugural Three Rivers Classic, then saw No. 5 Miami (Ohio) edge CCHA rival Ohio State, 1-0, in the nightcap.
RMU forward-turned-defenseman Andrew Blazek was in his first collegiate season when his team upset the then top-ranked Redhawks at the Civic Arena in the Pittsburgh College Hockey Showcase Jan. 8, 2010, and won the rematch in Oxford two nights later.
The Colonials (8-4-2) will meet Miami (12-3-4) at 7:30 Saturday night for the tournament title, and the dynamic junior has coincidentally come to life, recording points in four games during the ongoing streak, and scoring a goal in three of his last five.
Blazek, once a two-time letterman for longtime PIHL power Upper St. Clair, blazed up the left wing and fired a wrist shot over the glove hand of P.J. Musico for his fourth of the season just 1:49 into Friday’s game, which was all Robert Morris would need.
“He’s a very good offensive player. It was a great individual effort on the first goal, going wide to the outside, and beating the guy with that shot,” said head coach Derek Schooley. “He’s a presence that joins the offense and makes plays. He needs to simplify his game at times, but he’s getting it. He’s starting to figure it out a little bit.”
But just for good measure, the Colonials chased Musico with late scores by Adam Brace and Cody Wydo 28 seconds apart, with Wydo beating the sophomore from close range with 38 left in the first period to give RMU a 4-0 cushion.
“Getting an early lead was key for our team, and obviously we had a tremendous last five minutes of that period. I don’t think we were intimidated by the stage. I don’t think we had any nerves. We just went out and played hockey,” Schooley explained. “We made mistakes, they made mistakes, and unfortunately for them, their mistakes went in the net.”
Replacing Musico was freshman Matt Skoff, who settled down the game, and with it, his team, turning aside 18 of 20 shots through 40 minutes.
Skoff, also no stranger to NHL ice, played at the Igloo when Montour reached the Class AA Penguins Cup Final in 2009.
“We had it pre-determined he was going to get the start tomorrow, and I thought he was strong when he came in. But you’re not going to win a lot of games scoring zero goals,” Lions head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “You’ve got to give Robert Morris credit. They made plays, and they finished.”
Skoff had company on that ill-fated March night–the same company he had on his doorstep 4:23 into the third. Zac Lynch, a 2009 Penguins Cup champion with Shaler, set up a power play goal by Matt Cope.
Blazek later dished to fellow D-man Tyler Hinds for a one-timer from the right point that provided punctuation.
But a bigger statement than the one made by the Colonials was the one made by Pittsburgh about its unconditional love of the sport, its continued growth in the region, and the pride it still evokes.
“What a great venue…I’m sure they’re ready for the NHL to be back. If tonight’s crowd and energy, and the way they conducted the games are any indication of the way the Frozen Four is going to go, it’s going to be spectacular,” said Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.
But before CONSOL Energy Center hosts the penultimate round of the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament this approaching April, first comes what promises to be an interesting interstate grudge match.
“They’re gonna be ready. I know Coach Schooley very well,” Blasi said. “We’ve played against each other, and last time we played, they took care of us pretty good, so we’ll be ready to go. Hopefully, tomorrow we can go out and play 60 minutes the way we know we can play.”
On Friday the Hawks needed a terrific 29-save shutout from freshman Jay Williams, and a quick third-period garbage goal by winger Curtis McKenzie, a 2009 6th-round draft choice of the Dallas Stars, to survive the Buckeyes, who looked well prepared under assistant coach Steve Rohlik and volunteer R.J. Umberger, the former PIHL/junior prodigy from Plum anxiously awaiting to return to his Columbus Blue Jackets.
While Miami and Robert Morris turn their sights to the silver trophy that awaits Saturday’s ultimate winner, Rohlik, a 1986 Penguin draftee, cherished the return of hockey to the Golden Triangle, as did his next opponent.
“The people here…first-class,” Rohlik said. “It’s a real honor to play in an atmosphere like this. Like I said the other day, it was a big Christmas present for our guys to be here.”
“The student body and the alumni are unbelievable. I couldn’t wait to come here, and see how it is. The atmosphere was tremendous,” Gadowsky said of the festivities, and those who organized them. “It’s motivating to me and the players…to see the Penn Staters here.
“I hope they give us another chance.”
The consolation game between OSU and PSU is set for a 4:30 faceoff Saturday.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)