Frozen Frontier: RIT hockey program buzzing with excitement

RIT freshman goaltender Mike Rotolo, in action here against St. Lawrence, is 5-0 as a starter. - Ruglie Kaladyte

RIT takes on Niagara Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at Frontier Field, the first time the program will take part in an outdoors game.

There is a noticeable excitement permeating the Rochester Institute of Technology hockey program. The Tigers, a participant in the 2010 Frozen Four, are riding a five-game winning streak, but the buzz goes beyond that.

RIT will be playing its first outdoor game this weekend against Niagara at the Frontier Field, home of the city's minor league baseball team, in downtown Rochester.

"There is certainly a buzz around town. It looks like the weather is going to be good. The weather has turned here to about mid-20s. I'm really happy. It's exciting. Our program has never been part of an outdoor game. It's also the first time for the community. Hopefully the weather forecast holds true and it's a perfect night," said RIT head coach Wayne Wilson.

Wilson knows that the team must remain focused, despite the excitement, as there will be two big league points on the line when his team faces the Purple Eagles on Saturday night at 7:05 p.m.

"I want our players to enjoy it, but it is a league game and not a nonconference game. There are two valuable points on the line," said Wilson, a 1984 graduate of Bowling Green.

Wilson said there is not much difference in how he will prepare his team for the actual game, but said that the mental aspect of preparation will be different.

"We'll need to have stronger focus, be ready for the task at hand and limit distractions," said the coach in his 15th season behind the bench at RIT.

Wilson is intrigued by the darkness that might give goaltenders a disadvantage compared to playing in a bright indoor hockey arena.

"I'm interested to see how it will affect the goalies when the puck goes up above the boards into the dark sky," he said.

Much of the reason for the current five-game winning streak can be squarely placed on the shoulders of a freshman goaltender playing for his hometown college.

Mike Rotolo sat on the bench for the first 10 games of the season as the Tigers got out to a slow start at 1-7-2. Ever since head coach Wayne Wilson inserted the Rochester, NY native into the lineup, RIT has not lost a game.

The Tigers are 5-0 in games started by Rotolo, the former USHL goaltender with the Green Bay Gamblers and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.

"Mike is playing well. He has given us a spark. He is a very vocal goaltender with a lot of energy. It has rubbed off on the rest of the team," said Wilson.

Rotolo, playing college hockey in the city he called home and went to high school in, has also had more fanfare than the average freshman playing college hockey.

"He's getting a lot more attention with family and friends at the games," said Wilson.

Rotolo, standing at six-foot-one, has a 2.00 goals against average and a .935 save percentage with one shutout. His numbers are even better if you exclude his collegiate debut against St. Lawrence that the Tigers won 6-4.

Rotolo isn't the only freshman creating buzz around the program. Todd Skirving was recently named the Atlantic Hockey Association Rookie of the Week for the second time this season after posting two goals and an assist in last weekend's series sweep of American International. The Thunder Bay, Ontario native who played his junior hockey for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL has five goals and seven assists on the season.

It's certainly nice to have freshmen who can contribute, but as anyone who has followed college hockey long enough knows, a team must have senior leadership to excel.

Wilson's team certainly has that in the form of forward Michael Colavecchia and defenseman Greg Noyes. Colavecchia, from Maple, Ontario, leads the team in scoring with seven goals and nine assists. Noyes, a Lucan, Ontario native, is third among AHA blue liners in scoring with four goals and eight assists.

"They've had a lot of success and been through the ropes before. They bring an element of leadership. They are playing well and leading by example on the ice," said Wilson.

"Michael has an outstanding shot and is a good skater. Greg has a lot of poise with the puck. Both are key figures on our power play," said Wilson.

The future is bright for the hockey program at RIT with the school building a new state-of-the-art facility for the program to call home. Ground was broken Oct. 19 on the 4,150-seat Gene Polisseni Center that will be the nicest on-campus facility in Atlantic Hockey and one of the better arenas in the east for college hockey.

"I got my first tour yesterday. Wow, is it ever big," said an excited Wilson. "It's a great situation. It is an unbelievable upgrade for the fan experience and it will bring our ice surface up to regulation size," he added.

The current home of RIT hockey, Ritter Arena, is known for being one of the loudest buildings in college hockey, but there are some downfalls such as no reserved seating.

"The fans are right on top of us at Ritter. The new building will benefit some of our older fans who don't want to wait in line for a good seat or lose it if they get up to go to the concessions or restrooms," said Wilson.

The new building will help the sustainability of the program as it moves into the future. "It will help recruiting," said Wilson.

First, the team must tackle the task at hand Saturday on the Frozen Frontier against Niagara.

Jeff Cox covers college and junior hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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