COLUMBUS, Ohio — Things couldn’t have looked much worse for Ohio State.
Not only were the Buckeyes playing without star rookie R.J. Umberger — who had a goal and two assists against Northern Michigan on the road the weekend before, and who fractured his jaw in practice two days before — but they seemed utterly incapable of playing hockey. No two Buckeyes could connect a pass. Goaltender Mike Betz had to poke the puck away from his own teammate to prevent a goal.
And the Niagara Purple Eagles scored on just their second shot in the game when J.R. Holmes registered his first collegiate goal at 5:32 in the opening stanza, a full seven minutes before the Buckeyes made Rob Bonk do any work of any kind in the Niagara cage.
For 20 minutes, the Purple Eagles manhandled the Buckeyes. Niagara owned the neutral zone. Niagara owned the boards. The Eagles so outworked the Buckeyes in the first period that Ohio State didn’t register a shot on net until 12:24, and Niagara took a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
Then the Nick Ganga show began, with special guest star Andre Signoretti. And the Buckeyes downed Niagara 4-1 on Saturday.
Signoretti knotted the game in the second period after being hit so hard in the back of the ribs in the first period that he needed to be helped off the ice. Ganga’s natural hat trick put the game away.
Signoretti also saved a goal in the third period, literally.
In the first, Holmes gave the Purple Eagles the 1-0 lead after Ohio State netminder Mike Betz was forced to make a save on his own teammate when Jason Crain skated the puck through the crease in one of Ohio State’s many first-period attempts to get up the ice. Betz poked the uncomfortably close puck away and into traffic, where Holmes found it for Niagara’s only goal of the night.
“We weren’t playing hockey in the first period,” said Signoretti. “They came out fast and basically, no one wanted to touch the puck. We got the puck and we’d pass it away or chip it off the boards, stuff like that.”
Signoretti said that in between the first and second periods, he and fellow captain Jean-Francois Dufour asked their teammates a few questions: Do you know how to carry the puck? Do you know how to skate?
“It was really basic stuff,” said Signoretti. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we know how to play hockey.’ That’s what it was. We just settled down and played hockey.”
Signoretti had the tying goal at 7:38 in the second, assisted by Mike McCormick and Doug Andress. Bonk was screened by two players wrestling in his crease when Signoretti blasted it in from the left point.
At 16:55, Ganga gave Ohio State the lead on the power play on what OSU coach John Markell called a “major-league pass” from Andress. Andress sent a cross-ice rocket to Ganga from the far side of the left circle along the boards; Ganga waited for Bonk to commit low before going upstairs for his first goal of the season.
Ganga made it 3-1 Ohio State with just one second left in the second period, assisted by Miguel Lafleche and Signoretti. Signoretti dug the puck out of the right corner in the Buckeye zone and fed Lafleche along the boards near the blue line. Lafleche passed long across neutral ice to Ganga, who found the puck in the Niagara zone with a little help from a linesman’s skate. Ganga’s breakaway on the right wing beat Bonk clean on the opposite side.
Early into the third period, the Purple Eagles had a chance to make it a closer game when Betz was caught behind his net, giving Jordan Meloff a big, open target to hit. Instead, Meloff hit Signoretti, who made the diving save to preserve the two-goal lead.
Ganga’s unassisted, shorthanded goal at 17:47 made him the game’s unlikely hero and gave him a natural hat trick in the first multi-goal game of his college career.
“It was like the tale of two teams for us,” said Niagara head coach Blaise MacDonald. “I liked the team in the first period. We played a pretty good road game. We really almost played flawlessly in our execution of systems and … intangible things like grit and determination. And with a young team of so many freshmen I think we were under the impression it was a 20-minute game, and we were very excited about our performance.
“We came out in the second and third periods and played pathetically.”
Markell said the Buckeyes quite simply came out flat. “We were not moving our feet. I thought Niagara played a very good game. We had gone over their forecheck repeatedly, and basically what we said between the first and second period was just, ‘Apply the systems.’
“I wasn’t basing the game on what Niagara was doing — although they played a great first period. I was basing it on the ability we had on our bench, ability that wasn’t playing. I unloaded on them. There are expectations here. If we had played a more mature hockey club … and they would have sniped a few goals, we would have been behind … and I didn’t know if we would’ve recovered.
“It was a tremendous test for us. Obviously the third goal was very timely.”
“I would give Ohio State credit for bouncing back, which is what good teams do,” said MacDonald. “I’m sure they weren’t pleased with their performance in the first, but they showed me a lot of ability and I think they’re going to be a really good team this year and in the future.”
Betz made 12 saves and Bonk 30 as Ohio State outshot Niagara 34-13.
The Buckeyes were 1-for-3 on the power play while shutting down the Purple Eagles on the other end of that equation (0-for-4). In fact, Ohio State has allowed just one power-play goal this season in 15 attempts.
Ganga’s shorthander was a rare treat for the home crowd. Known more for his temper than his scoring last season, the junior had no penalties in the game.
“Nick Ganga scoring those goals was a nice breakout for him,” said Markell. “I guess he’s telling R.J. Umberger that he can score goals without him, but it was nice to see because you know what? We need some guys scoring goals. It was nice to see at home. I thought a lot of guys pulled up their socks and played a lot better hockey [in the second and third].”
What did Ganga have to say about his own performance? We may never know; he left without commenting.
Next up for Niagara (0-3-1) is a pair of games at Air Force Oct. 27-28, while Ohio State (2-1-0) travels to Maine for two on the same dates.