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Maggy Burbidge rushed down the right wing in the Syracuse zone, eyeing the net she sent the puck flying. Her shot missed its target and hit the boards, creating the perfect rebound to defenseman Gillian Thompson waiting patiently on the opposite side.
Syracuse goalie Allison Small lost track of the puck, going right as the puck careened left. Thompson’s stick collided with the puck and found a clean path past Small seven minutes into the first period.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect a bounce,” Thompson said. “It just bounced off behind the net and kicked out right to my stick and I just put it in.”
Over the next 2 1/2 periods, it stood as the only goal. Syracuse fired 36 shots toward the Colonials’ net, but Raygan Kirk turned all 36 aside. One night after knocking No. 1-seeded Penn State out of the CHA tournament with a 3-2 win, Syracuse (12-8-1, 10-7-1 College Hockey America) fell 1-0 to Robert Morris (16-7-1, 12-7-1) in the CHA championship game — failing to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and shattering a program-record nine-game winning streak.
“I didn’t know at that time that that was going to be the game-winning goal,” head coach Paul Flanagan said. “But really, for us, it was just a bad goal.”
Following an extended winter break earlier in the season — which kept Syracuse without a game for 34 days — the Orange dropped four of five games and sunk deeper in the CHA standings. Lack of offensive production mitigated comeback attempts. Seven game cancellations in between disrupted any potential rhythm.
But then Jessica DiGirolamo sparked an offensive boom with a hat trick against Lindenwood on Feb. 12, and over the next nine games, Syracuse scored three or more goals against its opponents. They climbed to claim the fourth seed in the tournament, and then kept climbing the bracket with back-to-back wins.
Against Lindenwood and Penn State in the first two rounds, Syracuse rode its early starts and scored three goals in the first period over two games. But on Saturday night, the Orange struggled to find open lanes and create clean looks through the Robert Morris defense. Syracuse created offensive pressure early, starting the game with two shots on goal from Mae Batherson and Lauren Bellefontaine. It dominated center ice, taking the puck into the Robert Morris zone to jump to an early 5-1 lead in shots on goal in the first five minutes.
But the Colonials responded minutes later, navigating traffic in front of the Syracuse net and landing a shot on goal, saved by Small. Then, Thompson sent the only goal of the night into the back of the net, and in the ten minutes remaining in the first period following the goal, Syracuse only recorded three shots on goal.
In both games against Robert Morris at the end of the regular season, the Colonials flooded Syracuse’s net with shots – causing Small to record a career-high 49 saves. But the Colonials couldn’t produce goals, turning those chances into more than just chances.
This time, it was Syracuse that couldn’t score. Kirk returned in net for Robert Morris after missing the past three weeks due to injury and recorded 36 saves. At one point, Anna Leschyshyn flew through the neutral zone with the puck and two Robert Morris defenders trailing behind, skated past the Colonials’ goal, attempted a backhand into the bottom crease but was met with the defenders sticks rather than empty net.
Then, DiGirolamo received a pass from Abby Moloughney at the blue line, spotted a clear path toward the goal, and fired a shot straight into an outstretched Kirk’s shoulder pad.
“Their defense and everyone on their team just bought into what they were doing – just blocking shots and deflecting pucks,” Flanagan said postgame. “I thought we came after them, unfortunately we couldn’t get one past her (Kirk) when we had those chances.”
Late in the second period, Leschyshyn took the puck to the net, backhanding it to Rayla Clemons on the left wing. While Clemons searched for a clean path for the puck, two Colonials’ defenders rushed her, causing her to lose balance and take a last-ditch effort shot on goal that was easily blocked by Kirk. Syracuse increased pressure in the third period, recording 10 shots on goal and winning 11 faceoffs. But it was “a little too little too late” Flanagan said, as the Orange failed to land that one goal, that one bounce, that the Colonials did.
“They were very methodical in their efforts of just not letting us get anything going,” Flanagan said. “We’re trying to get pucks through and we just didn’t get enough pucks on net to try to generate rebounds.”
As the clock wound down, Flanagan pulled Small from goal to get a man-up in the final minutes, and Syracuse’s first line threaded passes across the Robert Morris zone in an attempt to get the equalizer. Bellefontaine passed the puck high above Batherson, causing her to catch the puck in her glove, and the referee called Batherson’s catch deliberate — sending the Orange to a faceoff in the Syracuse zone. Flanagan erupted on the bench, yelling toward the referee that that catch was unintentional, but the call stood.
Bellefontaine crouched down, eyeing her opponent and won the faceoff. In a last-second rush to the next, Syracuse sent the puck flying down ice to the Robert Morris zone. Through traffic Batherson crossed the ice and sent the puck to DiGirolamo who took a shot on net. Kirk rebounded the shot, sending the puck back into the zone. The puck collided with Moloughney’s stick on the right side of the goal as Kirk looked left. Moloughney swung her stick toward an open net, but the shot missed as the horn sounded.
Gloves flew in the air and the Colonials gathered on ice, while Syracuse was left starting at the one final opportunity and one final bounce that didn’t make it in.
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