After a stretch of road games, Cyclone Hockey (10-9-1) will be back at home this weekend to face off against the Robert Morris University Illinois Eagles (9-7-2). The Cyclones played four of their previous five series on the road.
“When we’re playing our game, we’re generally pretty successful,” coach Jason Fairman said. “It’s a rivalry game with one of our league rivals, so it’s always tough.”
The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Both games will take place at the Ames/ISU Ice Arena.
The Cyclones last played Nov. 22 and 23, sweeping Colorado State. Robert Morris’ previous series also occurred on these two days, with the Eagles being swept by Illinois.
Robert Morris enters this weekend averaging just over four goals per game. Two Eagles — Scott Coash and Michael Cacciato — have more than 30 points each, with 34 and 31, respectively.
“Robert Morris is a very opportunistic team,” said Max Olson, Cyclone Hockey defenseman. “As long as we’re aware of it and looking out for it, I think we’ll be fine.”
In contrast, the Cyclones are holding their opponents to 1.7 goals per game, and their leading points leaders are Dylan Goggin (11) and Ray Zimmerman (10).
Cyclone Hockey’s scoring average this season is 1.8 goals per game — 2.9 in wins and 0.7 in losses.
“Our defense has kept us in most of our games this year,” Zimmerman said. “I think it’s our strong point. I think it’ll be a great matchup.”
In a continuation of the narrative, this weekend will be a top 25 matchup between the conference foes. The Cyclones sit at 16th in the current rankings and the Eagles sit at 24th.
This is not surprising as these two teams are usually ranked. Dating back to 2012, a vast majority of the games have been ranked matchups. The Cyclones and Eagles have played a total of 33 times in that span, with Cyclone Hockey having an 18-15 edge.
“Our schedule is very tough, so playing week in, week out at that kind of pace, you just get comfortable being uncomfortable; so it’s nothing new,” Olson said.
In the 33 games since 2012, the largest margin of victory for either side is three goals — three times for each team. Of the other 27 games, 16 were decided by one goal, eight by two goals and three by shootout.
With the three shootouts counting as a goal differential of zero, games during the span were decided by 1.5 goals per game on average.
In the 20 games this season for the Cyclones, the average goal differential is just less than two goals per game.
“I think that when you play game after game [and] it’s a one goal game, you get used to playing in those tight situations, and it’s another day at the office so to speak,” Fairman said.
One of the contributing factors in the success for the Cyclones this season has been penalty minutes — or rather, the lack thereof.
Of the 70 teams in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the Cyclones have the second least penalty minutes with 141. The Eagles are 46th with 298.
“You give them a lot of chances, eventually they’re going to score, and when we’ve got one-goal games, that’s going to be the difference,” Fairman said. “One of our strengths as a program is that our guys are disciplined.”
Only six games out of the 20 this season saw the Cyclones accumulate more penalty minutes than their opponent.
“We’re very disciplined. We get the man up, and they don’t,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, that helps with scoring goals, which we’ve struggled a little bit with.”
The Cyclones are just over the halfway point in the season with 20 games down and 18 to go. This weekend also is the halfway mark for conference play. After Saturday’s game, the second half of the home and home conferences games will begin.
“I think we’re coming along,” Fairman said. “[There are] a lot of young guys that show a lot of promise, and I think that next semester, we’ll only continue to get better.”
At this time last year, the Cyclones were ranked fifth, and in 2017, they were twelfth.
With 20 teams making the playoffs — six automatic bids for conference champions and 14 at-large bids — Olson and the Cyclones are optimistic about the remaining games.
“Everyone is kind of moving in the same direction,” Olson said. “We’re not always getting the bounces that we want and the outcome, but guys are going in the right direction, getting shots. It’s going to come by the end of the season.”