Pittsburgh, Pa. – The Steel City is home to a key College Hockey America matchup this weekend as Syracuse (2-4-2) visits Robert Morris (6-1-3).
Syracuse leads the all-time series with the Colonials 14-10-8, going 1-4-0 against RMU last season.
The Orange, picked to win the CHA in the preseason coaches poll, are off to a 2-0 start in league play, as is Robert Morris, a team selected third overall by CHA coaches.
Those 2-0 starts against conference opponents came in very different fashions last weekend. Syracuse topped a winless Lindenwood squad with a pair of 4-0 shutouts at home. Robert Morris also defended home ice, sweeping in-state rival Mercyhurst with a pair of thrilling 2-1 victories. While Cuse took control easily versus the Lions, RMU battled into the final four minutes of each contest with the games tied 1-1 before late-game heroics led to the Colonials’ first sweep of Mercyhurst since the 2012-13 season.
It’s been slightly longer since a sweep like that has come against Syracuse. Robert Morris last took two from the Orange in February of 2012, taking three of four games in the 2011-12 season.
History aside, these teams look a bit different offensively than they did a season ago.
Syracuse said goodbye to three of its top eight scorers from its 2015-16 CHA finals team The good news for Cuse is that forwards Alysha Burriss, Stephanie Grossi and Jessica Sibley return and are pacing the Orange so far this season. Overall, scoring has not come in bunches for Syracuse, averaging 4.88 points per game to Robert Morris’ 7.90 points per game. That number for Cuse is down nearly 3 points per game from last year’s campaign.
For the Colonials, much of the team scoring remains unchanged, save for freshman phenom Jaycee Gebhard, who is tied for the RMU points lead with 13, the same number held by her linemates Brittany Howard and Amber Rennie. Gebhard was named the CHA Rookie of the Month by the league for her 5 goal, 8 assist performance so far this season. The lone player missing from the 2015-2016 top 15 in scoring for the Colonials is 2016 graduate Ashley Vesci, currently contributing to the Buffalo Beauts in the NWHL.
DON’T BE FOOLED
Syracuse is sporting a 2-4-2 record but don’t let those losses fool you. The Orange recorded a one-goal loss and a tie with 6th-ranked Colgate and dropped a pair of games 2-1 and 3-0 to Bemidji State, a team receiving votes in the national poll. The other games in the books for Cuse include a 1-0 loss and 2-2 tie to Hockey East opponent Northeastern, and of course the CHA-opening sweep of Lindenwood.
LOVE ME TENDER
There’s no shortage of outstanding goaltending at Robert Morris.
As noted in this piece by The Ice Garden’s Stephanie Phillips, the Colonials all-time wins leader Jessica Dodds has been an important part of RMU’s hot start, recording two wins, three ties and no losses to open the season. Dodds is ranked 16th nationally in save percentage with a .937 mark, playing in five of the Colonials ten games thus far. The senior goaltender is 15th in the NCAA in goals against average with a 1.72 GAA.
But don’t let Colonials sophomore Lauren Bailey go unnoticed. Her .922 save percentage ranks 24th nationally while her 2.37 GAA is 26th. Those marks go along with her 4-1-0 record in the other half of RMU’s games, with Robert Morris splitting time evenly between the two goaltenders. Opponents have to prepare to face both goaltenders and either one could start on any given game day.
Syracuse is a team with more consistency in net as far as personnel is concerned. It’s been junior goaltender Abbey Miller’s net, as she’s the goalie of record for all but one game this season with a 2-3-2 mark. Miller posted her first career shutouts against Lindenwood, but didn’t face a large number of shots, making 22 and 15 saves. Miller’s numbers do stack up as her .937 save percentage is tied with Dodds’ and she sits in 11th nationally with a 1.40 goals against average. Below, hear from Miller on her first collegiate shutouts.
If special teams play a role in determining winners this weekend, the odds are ever in Robert Morris’ favor. The Colonials power play is sixth in the nation, converting at a 19.3 percent rate, while Syracuse is 30th overall with a 7.9% mark, scoring just 3 power play goals in 40 attempts, compared to RMU’s 11 power play goals in 57 tries.
The penalty kill units are nearly even, with RMU killing 88.7% of its penalties while Cuse is at an 87.9 percent mark.
Robert Morris has long been a team that prides itself on its shot-blocking abilities and this season is no different. The Colonials average 16.20 blocks per game, fourth-most in the NCAA. Syracuse is no slouch in this department either, ranked 11th with an average of 13.25 blocks per game.
Colonials defenders Maggie LaGue and Katherine Murphy are third and fourth in the nation in blocks per game, averaging 3.20 and 3.00 blocks per game respectively. Syracuse defender Dakota Derrer is close behind, blocking 2.62 shots per game.
QUICK ON THE DRAW
A key area of the game to watch this weekend will be the faceoff circle and ensuing puck possessions. Robert Morris does well in the circle, winning 53.1 percent of faceoffs, compared to Syracuse’s 48.5 percent average.
Rikki Meilleur (.625), Mackenzie Johnston (.614) and Brittany Howard (.575) have been dominant in the faceoff circle for the Colonials, and all of them are ranked in the top 35 nationally.
Grossi and Sibley take the bulk of the draws for the Orange, both winning roughly 48 percent of their faceoffs.
Syracuse has a one-two punch on its top two lines with Sibley at center with Heather Schwarz on her right wing, and with a line made up of Burriss, Grossi and Savannah Rennie producing as well.
Robert Morris has the second-highest scoring line in college hockey at their forefront, with Amber Rennie, Howard and Gebhard. After eight games with the majority of the Colonials scoring coming from this line, Robert Morris grabbed another gear and brought their depth onto the stage. Mercyhurst held that top line to just one assist by Howard last weekend, but new faces stole the show, including freshman Aneta Ledlova from the Czech Republic, who scored her first career goal and nabbed two assists to take home CHA Rookie of the Week honors.
Going winless in a tough non-conference schedule with just two wins against Lindenwood to its name, it’s hard to pin down who might be the X-factor for Syracuse this season.
For Robert Morris, it’s been Kirsten Welsh. The 5-11 sophomore defender has scored five goals with her vicious one-timer including a pair of game-winners (one of which was a nominee for #TIGTop4 plays of the week).
The puck drops between the two top teams in the CHA on Robert Morris’ home ice at 84 Lumber Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Friday, Nov. 4 at 7:05pm and the series wraps on Saturday, Nov. 5 with a 3:05pm contest.