If Robert Morris was going to survive its Atlantic Hockey Association tournament first-round series against Army, it would have to do it without starting goaltender Terry Shafer.
Shafer, the team's rock in the back half of this roller-coaster season, was injured early in the second period Sunday night with the Colonials facing a one-goal deficit, and was replaced by Dalton Izyk, a freshman with only five appearances this season.
Friday night, Robert Morris walloped Army by four goals, but the 12th-seeded Black Knights tied the series Saturday with a surprise victory. And now this decisive third game, and the Colonials' season, rested on the shoulders of an emergency backup.
In the end, Izyk kept the season alive. He made 15 saves to earn his first career win, as the Colonials offense found its feet again and surged to a 3-1 victory at 84 Lumber Arena.
"I couldn't be more proud of the guy," senior defenseman Andrew Blazek said of Izyk. "I'm not surprised in the least at how well he did and his ability to step up at the last second."
No. 5 seed Robert Morris (15-17-5) will face fourth-seeded Connecticut in a three-game second-round series next weekend in Storrs, Conn.
"We didn't do it the easy way," Blazek said. "That was a hard battle for three games, both physically and mentally."
It was Shafer whose uncharacteristic misplay broke the scoreless deadlock in the opening strains of the second period.
With the Colonials on the power play, Shafer fielded a clearing attempt in the corner and tried to play the puck down the ice. He hesitated, fumbled the puck and watched it trickle back toward the slot, where Army forward Luke Jenkins picked it up and sent the short-handed slap shot top-shelf over a sprawling Shafer.
Shafer was injured on the play, but, for the moment, he stayed in the game. At the next stoppage of play, defenseman Chase Golightly bent over beside Shafer, said a few words and then gestured to the bench for an injury timeout.
Shafer glided off the ice, grimacing, and was replaced by Izyk. Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley didn't have an update on Shafer after the game, but Shafer emerged from the locker room with his right leg in a brace.
"Our team played so well in front of him, that he didn't have to be great," Schooley said of Izyk. "He just had to be good, and he was as solid as they come."
Izyk got help quickly.
Only 101 seconds after the new kid stepped between the pipes, forward Matt Cope blocked a shot and barreled down the ice on a breakaway. His initial shot was saved by Army goalie Parker Gahagen, but forward Greg Gibson knocked in the rebound to tie the score, 1-1.
Robert Morris forward David Friedmann tacked on another goal, his ninth of the season, at the 11:34 mark of the second period to give the Colonials a 2-1 lead, and Blazek added an insurance tally five minutes into the third period, rocketing a wrist shot off a faceoff over Gahagen's shoulder.
Army (6-28) pulled its goalie with 2:15 left in the third period, but the Colonials defense stood tall to secure the victory and advance to the second round.
Robert Morris took the same road last season, meeting Connecticut in the quarterfinals. The Huskies swept the Colonials, 4-1 and 4-3, last March.
As he walked off the ice Sunday, Schooley gave in to the fans' cheers with a spur-of-the-moment celebration.
Before the second period, he had walked past the lacrosse team, huddled in the stands, and told them the building needed a little more life. They answered the call, so he finished the deal. Schooley launched himself against the glass and smacked the lacrosse players' "Easy Button" sign.
"Our guys were giving me some trouble about it," Schooley said afterward, laughing. "I didn't think they would see it, since they were turned the other way. But it was fun -- it's part of the game, you've got to enjoy it."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published March 9, 2014 10:17 PM