In Joe, Niagara trusts.
The Purple Eagles have a high-flying attack that is poised to challenge for the CHA crown. The reason for the optimism reads like this: 26 goals, 29 assists, 55 points. The returning CHA Player of the Year makes Niagara the most explosive team in the conference.
“We will be an even faster team this year,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “If Joe Tallari can put up the numbers he did last year or improve upon them, we will have plenty of offense.
— Niagara coach Dave Burkholder
“If you look at [Tallari], you wouldn’t know that he is a power forward, but he is very difficult to play against. If you get him in the prime scoring area, he’s one of the best scorers in the nation.”
Niagara is not a one-player team. Like the team it is expected to vie with for first place, Bemidji, the Purple Eagles lost just two players to graduation last year. The team finished last season on a roll, going 9-2-2 in its final 13 games.
Tallari is complemented by veteran linemate Barret Ehgoetz (20g, 25a). A second-team all-conference player, Ehgoetz had 45 points as Tallari’s center. The pair have developed a chemistry that enhances each of their ability.
Supporting that tandem on the second line is senior Chris Welch (14g, 16a). Welch averaged over a point per game last year despite missing 10 games due to an injury suffered at North Dakota.
“Ehgoetz is Tallari’s support guy,” Burkholder said. “If Welch can remain healthy, we expect him to contribute.”
On defense, the Purple Eagles will be led by co-captain Dan Hominuk (0g, 4a), who has steadily improved over the past season, and a transfer from Northern Michigan, Ryan Carrigan (4g, 4a in 2001-02).
“Hominuk is playing the best hockey of his career,” Burkholder said. “Carrigan was tested out in the CCHA and we expect him to come in and play in all situations.”
Unlike most veteran squads, Niagara has freshmen who are expected to make key contributions. Forwards Jerry Hall and Sean Bentivoglio will draw regular shifts up front, while on defense, Pat Olivante will be counted on to complement the upperclassmen.
The only major question mark in the Niagara lineup is between the pipes. Senior Rob Bonk had a good, if unspectacular junior season, posting a 2.93 GAA and a .899. He was disappointing in the CHA tournament, giving up five goals on 40 shots to Wayne State.
Still, hope pervades the Niagara program and, despite playing D-I hockey only since 1996, the school has a model in mind for success.
“It’s veterans that win games in March and April,” Burkholder said. “When we started eight years ago, we had 27 freshman. Four years later, we had 15 seniors and we made the NCAA tournament.
“With all our returning players, we are very optimistic about this year.”
Especially when one of those returning players is named Joe Tallari.