LEWISTON, N.Y. — Call it a win-win situation for both No. 13 Lake Superior State and Niagara.
The Lakers kicked off the new hockey season on a winning note by capturing a 3-2 overtime verdict at Dwyer Arena on Saturday, while the Purple Eagles showed people that they will still be a tough team to play even though they graduated 15 members from last year’s NCAA tournament Elite Eight team.
Jason Nightingale’s second goal of the game with 1:18 left in overtime lifted Lake Superior State to the triumph in this non-conference game, played before a sellout crowd of 1,500.
The win by the Lakers spoiled a 31-save effort by Niagara freshman Rob Bonk, who blanked the guests for more than 56 minutes before the Lakers took advantage of a fortuitous bounce to secure the win.
Lake Superior State had NU on the defensive for most of the overtime before taking advantage of some puck luck. With the Lakers buzzing around the Eagles’ zone, junior Jeremy Bachusz passed to an open Ryan Knox at the right point. Knox fired a shot that deflected off Bachusz’s stick and ricocheted off the inside of Bonk’s left pad to the left side of the crease, where Nightingale rammed the loose puck into the open net.
“Definitely a gift from above,” said Nightingale, a 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore.
“Half of the guys on the team have never played a college hockey game before,” Bonk said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to build on this and maybe be a little more prepared next time and come out and not put ourselves in a hole right away.”
Chris McNamara and Nightingale scored in the opening 7:41 to give the guests a quick 2-0 lead, but Niagara rallied to tie it on goals by freshmen Hannu Karru and Joe Tallari.
“I thought we evolved into playing very well as a team,” NU coach Blaise MacDonald said. “We never talk about winning or losing games here. We talk about preparing and playing well and I was happy with our performance in that regard.”
The game had its moments of action, but for the most part resembled a typical first game of the season for both teams. Lake Superior State and Niagara were each whistled for 16 minutes in penalties with both teams combining for 20 minutes worth of infractions during the second period.
The Purple Eagles had a chance to win the game in the final minute of regulation, but Lakers goalie Jayme Platt made a butterfly stop on Randy Harris’ one-time shot from the slot.
Lake Superior State played its aggressive style for most of the first period. It did not take long for the Lakers to open the scoring as McNamara snuck out of the right corner behind the NU defense and deflected an Aaron Davis shot over Bonk on the power play at 3:50. Lake Superior made it 2-0 at 7:41 as Nightingale slid the puck through Bonk’s legs off a face-off win by Mike Vigilante at the right circle.
As the period went on, the Lakers gave Niagara a little more room. The speedy Purple Eagles took advantage of that lapse and scored with five seconds left when Karru snapped a Bernie Sigrist pass from the right corner into the net.
Niagara wasted little time tying things in the second period as Tallari took a cross-crease pass from junior John Heffernan and rifled a shot over Platt’s glove at 1:11. The goal was set up when Heffernan intercepted a bad clearing pass by Platt.
The Lakers held a 24-17 shot advantage through 40 minutes and a 32-26 edge after regulation. They had the only two shots of the overtime period.
“My biggest concern — and it came true — was that we would not maintain our defensive urgency and would give them some space,” Lake Superior State coach Scott Borek said. “We gave them space, they started threatening us with their speed. I think it was just a contrast of styles. We were fortunate enough in the overtime. It seemed to go all in our direction, maybe just because we’re older and more physical.”
Bonk overcame a shaky first period and made several key stops the rest of the way. Bonk’s best save came with 3:44 left in the second period, when he stopped Nightingale on a breakaway with a nifty glove stop. Bonk turned away all 15 shots he faced in the middle frame.
“Bonk had some tough opportunities … but I liked the way he bounced back,” MacDonald said. “It is a very difficult emotion to control when you’re new and you’ve got a little bit of anxiety to compete at the level you want to compete at. He did absolutely everything we could’ve asked from him.”
Platt, a second-team All-American last year, finished with 24 saves.
Noteworthy: Niagara raised its CHA Championship and NCAA Final Eight banners before the start of the game. Mike DeSantis, the father of NU graduate Peter DeSantis, and former captain Jon Marshall unveiled the CHA banner, while current Niagara captain Timo Makela unveiled the NCAA banner.