The Niagara Purple Eagles are enjoying their most successful stretch since joining Atlantic Hockey last season with their longest undefeated streak in 11 years.
Niagara has won six games in a row and moved into a tie for third place, one point behind Mercyhurst and two points behind first-place Rochester Institute of Technology.
When asked for the reasons behind his team’s hot streak, coach Dave Burkholder pointed to a good work ethic.
“It’s hard to say, hard to put a number on it,” he said. “We’ve just continued to play well and got on a roll. Our work ethic has been phenomenal, even when the execution has been sketchy. That’s helped us grind out some games. We continue to be very balanced as a team, which means we don’t get too low or too high.”
The Purple Eagles won a pair of hard-fought, 2-1 games against Robert Morris last weekend.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games this season and right now we’ve been able to pull out close games like that,” said Burkholder. “The first night we needed a late goal to win and the second night was kind of the opposite where we got out front and had to hang on.”
Two Chrises have been especially hot during the streak: senior goaltender Chris Noonan and freshman forward Chris Lochner.
Burkholder has used four goaltenders so far this season, but Noonan has been in net during every game of the winning streak.
“We’ve been searching for someone to step up and take the reins,” said Burkholder. “Every game he’s played well enough to play again. He’s a hard-working kid, and I’m happy for him. You hope your senior year is your best year and that’s the way it’s been for him.
“He’s played some big games in the past. We beat Bemidji when they were ranked [in the 2010 CHA tournament] and Chris started that game for us. As a senior he’s had that experience and is tough mentally.”
Six of Lochner’s seven goals this season have been in 2012, with the other one coming on Dec. 31, 2011. He has five goals in his last three games.
“Since we put him on the power play, it’s really clicked,” said Burkholder. “He’s a little guy and you don’t normally have a guy his size in front of the net because he doesn’t set that big of a screen. But he’s had a knack of getting his stick open. He’s provided the secondary scoring that we’ve been needing.”
The Purple Eagles have eight games left, all but Air Force within a two-hour drive.
“It’s so different with 12 teams [in the AHA compared to four in the CHA] and with some teams so close,” said Burkholder. “The RIT games are big because of their building and the history we have with them dating back to when we started the program 16 years ago. Obviously, the Canisius games are big on our campus. It’s going to be a great atmosphere to play in down the stretch.”
Players of the week
From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:
Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Brett Gensler, Bentley
Gensler had more points last week than many players accumulate in a season. The sophomore had eight points in three games, including a hat trick in a 6-6 tie with Holy Cross last Tuesday. Gensler also had an assist in that game, as well as three more in a 6-2 win against Army on Friday, finishing out the week with a goal on Saturday. He leads Atlantic Hockey in points (30) and assists (20).
Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Garrett Bartus, Connecticut
Bartus stopped 64 of 65 shots last weekend to lead the Huskies to a sweep of Holy Cross. He posted a shutout on Saturday, making 33 saves.
Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Alex Grieve, Bentley
The freshman from Calgary, Alberta, had a seven-point week, including three goals and four assists. Grieve has 13 points since the beginning of 2012.
Back in the win column
Sacred Heart goaltender Steven Legatto picked up his second win of the season on Friday, the first for him and the Pioneers since November. He made 45 saves in a 4-2 win over American International, and another 36 in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Yellow Jackets the next night.
A tradition returns
On Saturday, for the first time since 2006, Army will play the Royal Military College, hosting its Canadian counterparts at Tate Rink. This is a rivalry that dates to 1923, and it will be the 76th meeting between the schools, with the Black Knights holding a 39-29-7 advantage. The Challenge Trophy will be presented to the winner after the contest.
“We are thrilled to be playing RMC again and for our cadets to have a chance to compete against their cadets,” said Army coach Brian Riley. “Our guys will have a chance to experience this great rivalry like other Army players, and I really think they will enjoy playing in this series. The memories will last a lifetime.”
Saturday night’s all right
Last Saturday was a night to remember at Connecticut for several reasons. The Huskies completed a sweep of rival Holy Cross for the first time in the school’s Division I era. UConn’s 3-0 shutout was its fourth of the season, also a record. And to top things off, Bartus made 33 stops to move into first at the school with 2,439 career saves.
On a roll
A pair of AHA teams are tied for second in the nation for longest unbeaten streak. Niagara has won six in a row while RIT is 5-0-1 over its last six games.
Both teams are doing it with defense. The Purple Eagles have allowed just five goals over that stretch; RIT has allowed four. Niagara’s Noonan is first in the nation in save percentage (.942) while RIT’s Shane Madolora is third (.937).
The teams, fittingly enough, skated to a 0-0 tie earlier this season. They may be on a collision course, playing each other again the final weekend of the regular season.
Tweet of the week
Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley’s reaction to coming up short against Niagara on Saturday.
Want to be eligible for TOTW? Follow me at @chrislerch.
USCHO covers Atlantic Hockey all week long on the Atlantic Hockey Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.