It has been five years since Robert Morris was this close to clinching its first NCAA tournament berth. The Colonials endured heartbreaking overtime losses in the Central Hockey America conference tournament championship in 2007 and 2009.
Now, head coach Derek Schooley has Robert Morris back to the semifinal stage for the first time since joining the Atlantic Hockey Association four years ago. This time, the team is intent on finishing.
The fifth-seeded Colonials (17-17-5) face No. 6 Niagara (15-19-5) tonight in the conference tournament semifinals at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
The winner will advance to the final Saturday to play for an automatic NCAA tournament bid against the winner of the other semifinal between No. 1 Mercyhurst and No. 7 Canisius.
"It was a goal of our team to get to the final four in Rochester, but that's not our only goal," Schooley said. "Our goal is still to get into the NCAA tournament, and we've got to win two games here in Rochester to do it."
Niagara knocked off No. 3 seed Air Force in three games last weekend in a quarterfinal series at Colorado Springs, Colo. Robert Morris swept No. 4 Connecticut, 3-0 and 3-2, in Storrs, Conn., to earn its first Atlantic Hockey championship weekend appearance.
"It's hard to get here," Schooley said. "We want to make sure we take advantage of the opportunity."
It will be the Colonials' first game at Blue Cross Arena, home to the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, but it won't be their first visit.
When Robert Morris went to Rochester for a weekend series in early February against RIT, Schooley surprised his team with an unannounced trip to Blue Cross Arena. He wanted to show them where they would be playing in March.
At that time the Colonials were 11-13-4 and hardly perceived as a threat to challenge for the conference title. But after holding off Army in the first round of the tournament and sweeping the Huskies, Robert Morris is the second-highest seed remaining.
On paper, it's a dead-even matchup between the Colonials and Purple Eagles. The teams tied, 3-3, in October and split a home-and-home series in mid-February.
"Every game was close. Every game has been a battle," Schooley said. "I'd expect nothing less than that."
The Colonials likely will be without sophomore goalie Terry Shafer (leg) again, according to Schooley. Shafer was hurt in the third game against Army and was replaced by freshman backup Dalton Izyk.
"We are going into the weekend hoping Terry can return but planning for Dalton to start," Schooley said.
Izyk earned Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week honors after stopping 69 of 71 shots against Connecticut. He is 3-0 since filling in for Shafer.
"I don't think our team's confidence in Dalton has every wavered," Schooley said. "He just hadn't had a chance to show what he can do. He did it last weekend, and now it's his turn to show if he can do it again."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.