Robert Morris will take the ice tonight for its first NCAA tournament appearance, hoping to crash the dance and knock off No. 1 overall seed Minnesota in the West Region first round at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The Golden Gophers (25-6-6) are in their 35th NCAA tournament and have won five national championships, and this regional is being played just 8 miles from Minnesota’s home rink.
“Our backs have been against the wall for two months now,” Colonials senior captain Colin South said. “We’re pretty used to it.”
Robert Morris (19-17-5), seeded fourth in the West, won just two games in the first half of the season before roaring back with a 17-5-3 mark after Jan. 1.
Nowhere is the disparity between the Golden Gophers and the Colonials better depicted than by the disparity in status between goalies.
Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox is a Hobey Baker Award finalist and a top-three Division I goaltender in virtually every statistical category, including victories (23), goals-against average (1.91) and save percentage (.933).
In net for Robert Morris will be freshman Dalton Izyk, who waited in the wings all season until starter Terry Shafer injured his leg three weeks ago. Izyk, a little-used backup, is 5-0 with a 2.06 goals-against average and .942 save percentage since replacing Shafer.
“What more do you want him to do?” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley asked. “He hadn’t won a game, and now he’s won five in a row to get us into the NCAA tournament. That’s a pretty impressive debut.”
The Colonials defeated Canisius, 7-4, a week ago in the Atlantic Hockey Association tournament final, thanks to junior forward Cody Wydo’s third hat trick this season. Wydo’s 30 goals, a single-season Colonials record, are second only to Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau’s 32 in Division I.
Minnesota boasts the eighth-best offense in Division I, with 3.41 goals per game — Robert Morris is sixth with 3.46 goals per game — but the Golden Gophers’ calling card is their stifling defense.
Minnesota has surrendered 75 goals this season and ranks third in Division I with a 2.03 goals-against average.
“They’re a tremendous hockey team,” Schooley said. “They’re No. 1 in the nation for a reason. We’re going to go in there and play hard, compete and see what happens.”
No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 St. Cloud State will meet in the first game in St. Paul, with the winner advancing to the regional final against Minnesota or Robert Morris with a Frozen Four berth on the line.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.