ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Atlantic Hockey Association’s championship weekend came loaded with a flair for the dramatic. Friday’s semifinal contests were nearly carbon copies — both 5-4 overtime finishes — and stretched to the very brink of championship Saturday.
Four minutes before midnight and with five minutes left in overtime, Robert Morris junior Scott Jacklin found himself wide open in the Niagara goalmouth. He called for the puck, received it, and … “totally whiffed on it,” Jacklin explained afterward.
Still, the heel of his stick nicked the puck, which ricocheted off the toe of his skate and trickled ever so slowly across the goal line. Mighty Jacklin had struck gold.
“Scott Jacklin with his 9-iron,” joked Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley.
The fifth-seeded Colonials kept their NCAA tournament dream alive with a 5-4 overtime victory against No. 6 Niagara in the conference tournament semifinals Friday night at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
The Colonials (18-17-5) will battle for the Atlantic Hockey tournament title and an automatic NCAA tournament bid tonight against No. 7 Canisius, which upset top-seeded Mercyhurst, 5-4, in double overtime of the earlier semifinal.
Robert Morris, in its 10th season at the Division I level, is now as close as it has ever been to its first NCAA tournament appearance. The Colonials lost in overtime of the Central Hockey America conference tournament championship game in both 2007 and 2009.
It’s a familiar scenario for Canisius, though. The Golden Griffins (17-20-3) entered the conference tournament last season as the No. 7 seed and rattled off six consecutive wins to clinch a surprise NCAA tournament berth.
Now, “to be a champion, you’ve got to go through the champions,” Schooley said.
The Colonials were 2-1 against Canisius in the regular season.
Fatigue could well be a significant factor in Saturday’s finale, as both semifinals stretched into overtime and beyond.
The Golden Griffins played more than 90 minutes of hockey before Stephen Farrell snuck the game-winner past Mercyhurst goalie Jimmy Sarjeant at the 13:30 mark of double-overtime.
Robert Morris’ start time was delayed by an hour and a half, and the team was at the arena for nearly 10 hours Friday.
“Longest day of my life,” Jacklin said, cracking an exhausted smile.
Robert Morris again relied on its freshman backup goaltender, Dalton Izyk, who first entered as an emergency substitute when starter Terry Shafer, a sophomore, suffered a leg injury in the first round against Army March 9.
Izyk made 51 saves to earn his fourth consecutive victory.
“What is he, 4-0 in the playoffs?” Schooley asked. “I’ll take that from a freshman who had never won a game before.”
Sophomore forward Greg Gibson got Robert Morris off to a quick start when he took a centering feed in the slot less than three minutes into the game and sent the puck flying past Niagara freshman netminder Jackson Teichroeb.
The teams traded goals in the second period, with center Hugo Turcotte scoring for the Purple Eagles (15-20-5) and sophomore forward Matt Cope getting the lead back for Robert Morris. Niagara never once tasted the lead.
Despite being on the wrong end of a lopsided 18-10 shot total after one period and 36-19 after two periods, the Colonials made their chances count, and Izyk locked down the other end of the ice to secure a slim, one-goal lead heading into the third period.
The third period was nothing but fireworks. It featured five goals in the final 12 minutes and, ultimately, a deadlock at the end of regulation.
Niagara’s Stephen Pietrobon knotted the score, 2-2, by finishing a perfectly executed two-on-one with 11:28 left in the third period, the Colonials would answer in rapid succession.
At the 8:31 mark, senior captain Colin South stuffed home a rebound, and exactly a minute later, junior forward Cody Wydo scored his program-record 27th goal of the season to make it a 4-2 ballgame.
With Niagara pressing and Robert Morris on its heels, the Purple Eagles struck back with tallies with 3:03 and 2:16 remaining to tie it up and force overtime.
Schooley credited his players for regrouping quickly after relinquishing the lead.
“Usually after you give a lead up, you play not to lose,” Schooley said. “They played to win.”
Just as it seemed a second overtime session was inevitable, Jacklin somehow willed the game-winner into the net. “I don’t think I’ve jumped that high in my life,” Jacklin said of his celebration as his teammates streamed off the bench and into their first championship Saturday.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.