ST. PAUL- Robert Morris' road to the 2014 West Regional has been paved with obstacles. Losing starting goaltender Terry Shafer in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey tournament could have spelled disaster. So could a 2-12-2 start to 2013 that culminated with losses to Penn State and Bowling Green in the Three Rivers Classic holiday tournament.
However, those obstacles - and a bit of fire - have been a motivating factor.
Head coach Derek Schooley had each player write their regrets, faults and failures from the first hald on a sheet of paper. He then burned them, along with a Three Rivers Classic poster and the 2013 results, outside in the snow prior to the first 2014 practice.
The ceremonial cleansing has worked so far. Since January 4th, Robert Morris is 17-5-3 and in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
"It's a credit to them that we are sitting here today and still playing at the end of March after our start," said Schooley, the only head coach RMU has had since starting a Division 1 hockey program in 2004. "We don't like to talk about 2013. That was our previous season. We flushed that season right down the toilet and now in 2014 that is the season we like to talk about."
The Colonials, last year's Frozen Four host, advanced to St. Paul as the fifth seed in Atlantic Hockey. Weekend series wins over Army and Connecticut led Schooley's squad to Rochester, NY. There it held off Niagara in overtime before defeating Canisius 7-4 after coming back to score a third period go-ahead goal after the Griffins tied it up three times in under a minute.
Being down that road gives Robert Morris, to Schooley, an advantage in mindset over a Minnesota team which lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten conference tournament semifinals.
"The one thing now is that not everyone in this tournament has played for their lives every day because if they won their tournament they got in, but if they lost some still got in. We've been playing elimination games," he said. "We already played an elimination game against Army. We played an overtime elimination game against Niagara. We played an elimination game against Canisius. We've played three elimination games already and handled it pretty well."
Led offensively by junior Cody Wyno, whose 30 goals are second in the nation behind Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau, Robert Morris has plenty of, for lack of a better term, firepower. The Colonials are sixth in the nation averaging 3.41 goals per game. In 2014 alone it leads the country.
Wyno's goal scoring - bolstered by a hat trick in the Atlantic Hockey championship- led Gophers head coach Don Lucia to say it doesn't matter what league a player comes from if they are able to put up that many goals. He's one of four Colonials forwards (all sophomore and juniors) to maintain that up-tempo play with over 30 points this season.
Even defensively, freshman goaltender Dalton Izyk has stepped up in Shafer's absence. After splitting the first weekend with Shafer, Izyk went down with an injury and wasn't himself until the recent run.
"It was challenging for him, but we had a tremendous amount of confidence in Dalton," said Schooley. "I got the question after we won ‘how do you assess his play?' He's won. He's won a championship, he's 5-0 in the playoffs.
"You can't ask more from a freshman that has only played 4 or 5 games in the regular season."
It's a role that Robert Morris will have to ask more if the sixteenth seed wants to continue its season. The Gophers, whose season ended last year in a first round upset to eventual national champion Yale, come to Xcel Energy Center as the venue host and top overall seed.
Being the underdog is just another obstacle for Robert Morris in a season of them.
"Anytime you knock off a team like them it's going to be a good feeling. We knocked off Miami at the Three Rivers Classic last year and weren't overjoyed or anything like that," Wyno said. "Anytime you can knock off a powerhouse like Minnesota or Miami or Notre Dame, like our school has done in its history, it's a really good feeling."
His teammate Colin South was much more direct, saying, "if we beat Minnesota, we get to play again Sunday."
Atlantic Hockey champion Robert Morris will play Minnesota in the opening game Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. It airs on ESPN2 at 5:30 pm. ET (4:30 p.m. CT) prior to St. Cloud State-Notre Dame.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate