SYRACUSE, N.Y. — For the second time in three years, Niagara beat the odds to win the Syracuse Invitational Tournament.
Led by tournament Most Valuable Player Chris Welch, who picked up two goals on the evening — including the go-ahead tally in the second period — the Purple Eagles outlasted Cornell for a 4-3 win Sunday in the title game.
“This win in terms of emotion and what we did, it was big,” said Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald. “To play an ugly game to get to the finals was big, and then for a championship for a young team, to get it done, its huge. This tournament has been good to us, and hopefully in the long run it will continue to be.”
“This makes three wins in a row for our team,” said Welch. “For a young team to get some confidence, who knows how long we can ride this?”
On the weekend, Welch had three goals and an assist.
It wasn’t an easy road for the Purple Eagles. After battling Colgate the night before in a sluggish game, Niagara (4-7-3) had to play against a Cornell (3-3-2) team with a tough defense. And Cornell made it look as if it would be a long evening for a young Niagara squad when the Big Red notched its first goal just 1:32 into the game.
With the puck in the Niagara zone, Cornell put traffic in front of goaltender Rob Bonk. and the confusion allowed Stephen Baby to lift the puck past Bonk and give the Big Red the lead, 1-0.
Niagara stepped up to the challenge, and played to the tone that Cornell had set for the game. Both teams skated fast and hit hard.
The Purple Eagles’ first goal came at the 4:24 mark of the first period. Nick Kormanyos put the puck on goaltender Chris Gartman, who made the save on the shot. But Gartman was unable to control the rebound, which bounced out to Welch. He pounced and made the shot count, beating Gartman right-side and tying the game at one-all.
Cornell answered quickly. On the ensuing faceoff, Cornell gained control and Matt McRae brought the puck into the Niagara zone, skated up the right-side boards and sent down a centering pass that was deflected into the net. The goal was credited to Baby, though it seemed equally likely that defender Thomas Clayton put the puck into his own net.
Niagara’s second goal of the game came at the 6:04 mark of the second period. Darwin Murray passed the puck to teammate Shaun Burkart, who skated in along the boards and took a shot that beat Gartman before he could close the five-hole.
Cornell then replaced Gartman with Ian Burt, but Niagara kept up the momentum as Welch picked up his second goal of the game. All alone in front of Burt, Welch faked a shot to down the netminder, and with Burt on the ice, Welch found the shot he wanted and put the puck in the goal along the ice, giving Niagara the lead, 3-2, at the 12:30 mark of the period.
Niagara’s Hannu Karru added a fourth goal in the third frame. Bernie Sigrist, operating behind the net with the puck, gave it to Karru, who was waiting on the doorstep and put the shot home at 10:35.
But Cornell kept the pressure on Bonk, and with just 2:28 remaining, pulled Burt in favor of the extra attacker, and after several unsuccessful chances Doug Murray fired a laser shot from the blue line that beat Bonk upstairs.
Still, it was too little, too late, as Niagara held on for the win by a final of 4-3.
“We’ve played five games in nine days, and I think that our guys are a little fatigued,” commented Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “We couldn’t sustain the high pace of the whole game, and Niagara could. It was a frustrating game from our standpoint.”
Bonk made 23 saves on the evening for Niagara, while Gartman made 10 saves and Burt nine for Cornell. Only five penalties were called in the game; Niagara was 0-for-3 with the man advantage, and Cornell never went on the power play.
Next weekend Niagara returns to CHA play to host Alabama-Huntsville, while Cornell will host ECAC foes Yale and Princeton.