PRINCETON, N.J. — Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald is pretty sure the goals are coming. He just doesn’t know when.
MacDonald was contemplating this point after his team went through its fourth game of scoring one goal or less, this time in a 1-1 tie at Princeton’s Baker Rink on Saturday.
“I think we’ll get better at finishing,” MacDonald said. “And we’ll just focus on getting shots in the process. Eventually, it will come. We’ve experienced a total lack of puck luck. We’ve gotten no bounces. It’s been amazing. That’ll change.”
The game marked the culmination of a seven-game road stretch for the Purple Eagles (1-4-3), during which they criss-crossed the country from Nebraska to Ohio to Colorado to New Jersey. They return home next week, only to face the 6-1-1 Western Michigan Broncos, a team that has scored 46 goals in their eight games.
“To play this well on a Saturday, after all that [travel], is encouraging,” said MacDonald.
Saturday was, nonetheless, particularly frustrating for Niagara because it did everything it wanted to do for two periods.
Despite losing Friday to Princeton, 3-1, Niagara held the territorial edge in the third period. MacDonald urged his team to carry that over to Saturday, and they did, outshooting the Tigers 18-1 through the first 37 minutes of the game.
“They were using somewhat of a lock,” said Princeton coach Len Quesnelle, “but there were no major differences [from Friday]. It was more what we didn’t do.”
But, for Niagara, with only a 1-0 lead at that point, the frustration mounted for the young team.
“The anxiety and frustration level increases when you hold such a territorial edge and [an edge] in shots, and you’re only up 1-0,” MacDonald said. “It leads to indecisiveness and anxiety.”
Meanwhile, Princeton (1-0-1), already without two seniors — captain Kirk Lamb and assistant captain Shane Campbell — for the weekend, had two other seniors sit out after geting hurt Friday. Ethan Doyle was diagnosed after Friday’s game with a concussion, and defenseman Peter Zavodny could be lost for at least two months after separating his shoulder.
Thus, the Tigers dressed eight freshmen, one more than the night before.
As it turned out, it was a freshman that gave Princeton the tie. After doing very little offensively through two periods, Dan Hursh scored his first collegiate goal when he tucked a nifty backhander through the legs of Niagara goalie Rob Bonk, tying the game with 14:03 remaining in regulation.
The play started when fellow freshman Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer sent a long breakout pass from his own zone off the left wing boards. Hursh, stationed near the opposing blue line, saw the puck bounce behind him, off the boards, and caroming out in front of him.
“I knew it was coming, it was just whether it had a good bounce off the boards,” said Hursh. “I was able to keep good enough speed going to get past the defenseman.”
Over the next 10 minutes, Princeton had its only sustained pressure of the night, and got some good chances, especially from the line of Chris Owen, Brad Parsons and Chris Corrinet.
“As the game went on, we made a few more plays through the neutral zone,” said Quesnelle. “Not as many as I would’ve liked. We had a tough time breaking out. They skate hard and pressured our young guys. Young players sometimes have a hard time handling the puck under pressure.”
In the overtime, Niagara had the only shots — three — and wound up with a 30-13 shooting edge.
“Obviously I’m pleased with our defense, starting with the forecheck,” said MacDonald.
Goalie Nate Nomeland, little-used last year as a freshman, stopped 29 shots and showed he will be a quite capable compliment to junior Dave Stathos. He survived an onslaught late in the first period and into the second, when Princeton went a stretch of approximately 28 minutes without a shot on goal.
“Nate is a hard worker, and when you have a guy who works hard and is coachable, it pays off,” Quesnelle said.
Princeton struggled so badly for offense, that even when it got a breakaway in the second period, freshman Thomas Colclough missed the net. The Tigers finally broke the shotless string with 2:55 left in the second period, then quickly got three more shots as they started to get on track.
“Given that Lamb, Shane and Doyle are out, it’s a good start,” Quesnelle said of the weekend win and tie. “Even though it was butt-ugly, it’s something to build off of.”
Niagara scored a power-play goal just 3:02 into the game on a wrist shot by defenseman Scott Crawford, his second of the year.
Princeton then ran into problems when it was whistled for a pair of too many men on the ice penalties in the next seven minutes. Quesnelle chalked it up to freshman inexperience, in part because Steve Slaton, a former forward turned defenseman-who-often-plays-like-a-forward, was back up front on Saturday because of all the injuries.
“That kind of backfired,” Quesnelle said.
“We made mental mistakes, but it’s a learning experience for [the freshmen],” said Corrinet. “We showed resiliancy.”