The hockey-starved crowds that came to watch Robert Morris win the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center last month -- all 22,460 of them -- were not lost on goalie Eric Levine.
He recalls a time not long ago when a fraction of that pushed through the turnstiles to take in a Colonials game.
"I can remember my freshman year coming here and playing in front of 100 people. No one really knew who we were," said Levine, now a senior. "That was excellent to see the kind of support Pittsburgh gave to us. It was awesome. As a player, to play in front of that many people and see the support is a testament to the program, to the alumni, the coaches.
"Hopefully that's something that can continue."
The Colonials, who were ranked briefly in college hockey's national polls at No. 15, have tried to keep the momentum from the tournament and ride it to the Atlantic Hockey finals.
They have gone 3-3 since, splitting each series they've played -- against Army, Connecticut and American International.
They have received votes each week in the USCHO.com poll, and for coach Derek Schooley, it's a step in the right direction.
"If you'd tell me at the beginning of the year with a young team we'd be 12-7-2, I'd take it in a heartbeat," said Schooley. "We have to do a little bit better. We need to be more consistent."
Their ultimate goal, Levine said, is to make their way to the NCAA tournament.
"It was big for our program [to be ranked] but to say that that was our end goal would be false," said Levine. "Our end goal is to be in Rochester and to win the championship and make the [NCAA] tournament."
The Atlantic Hockey league never has had an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament, which culminates with the Frozen Four.
While that could change this season, it's certainly not a given, meaning the Colonials would need to get hot at the right time and win the league championship to earn the bid.
"We want to finish in the top four in our league. We want a first-round bye and that's been a goal," said Schooley. "We've had some deficiencies and we've been addressing them. When Eric was playing at a .980 or 1.000 save percentage, those deficiencies were masked."
Which teams might make their way to Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four in April?
There's a lot of hockey to be played still, but Minnesota sits atop both national polls -- the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and the USCHO.com poll -- this week for the fourth time in a row .
The Golden Gophers, who play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), are 17-3-4 overall and are followed in both polls by Quinnipiac (17-3-3), Boston College (14-5-2) and New Hampshire (14-5-2).
Colonials nominate three
Robert Morris has nominated three players in the initial round of voting for the 2013 Hobey Baker Award -- college hockey's equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Forwards Adam Brace and Zach Hervato and Levine will vie to become one of 10 finalists announced later this season.
Brace is playing at a point-per-game clip with 9 goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 21 games. Hervato is right behind him with 16 points on 7 goals and 9 assists.
Levine, 11-5-2, has a 2.31 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.
"Zach Hervato had a great start to the year when we nominated him and was over a point a game," said Schooley.
On Brace: "Adam Brace is probably our most talented player, leading the nation in short-handed goals -- he's playing hard and he's a player that is a top-line player on almost any team in the nation."
And Levine? "What he did in the Three Rivers [Classic] speaks for itself. Eric's played like one of the top goalies in the nation," said Schooley.
Finding a home
On the verge of being cut as a program in the fall of 2011, the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program survived as an independent, and last week found a permanent home.
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association voted to admit Alabama-Huntsville as a full-time conference member starting next season.
"All athletic programs experience special defining moments, and our hockey program's acceptance today into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is certainly one of those," Alabama-Huntsville athletic director E.J. Brophy said in a statement last week. "The WCHA is a pre-eminent hockey conference in America, and I know that our student-athletes, coaches, fans, friends, alums and the people of Huntsville are ecstatic and proud of this giant step for our ice hockey program."
The league will be made up of Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, Minnesota State, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Bowling Green, Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville.
The addition, in part, makes up for the loss of several key programs leaving the WCHA because of conference realignment.
In March 2011, the Big Ten announced the formation of a Division I men's college hockey league that would include current WCHA members Minnesota and Wisconsin and begin play in 2013-14.
That July, five more teams -- Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota announced they would leave the WCHA after the 2012-13 season to form another league, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
On Sept. 22, 2011, St. Cloud State announced it was leaving the WCHA for the NCHC.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez.