LEWISTON, N.Y. — What a season it’s been for Niagara freshman Chris Welch.
The Tonawanda, N.Y., native seemed to be coming into his own as an offensive forward in November, ending the month by securing MVP honors at the Syracuse Invitational Tournament. Yet, his momentum came to a halt after tearing the MCL in his left knee two games into December.
Welch finally returned to game action last weekend, but emphatically announced he’s back before 1,251 fans at Dwyer Arena on Saturday as he notched his first collegiate hat trick in the Purple Eagles’ 5-0 win over CHA guest Findlay.
Welch’s last goal came in the same game he injured his knee, a 2-0 win over Alabama-Huntsville on Dec. 2.
Welch assisted on Nick Kormanyos’ game-winning overtime goal last weekend at Findlay, but had not found the back of the net himself until 5:15 of the second period last night. Welch added a shorthanded goal and a power-play goal in the third period to help Niagara post its fourth straight win.
“I worked my butt off trying to get into shape. I was riding the bike with that big knee brace that went from my hip to my ankle two weeks before I started to skate just to get into shape. Now that I got that back and had a game like this … I feel like I’m part of the team which feels great,” said Welch, who is tied for second on the team in goals scored with nine.
“We’re getting so much more out of him than I thought we would,” NU coach Blaise MacDonald said. “I really compare him to a poor man’s Chris Drury [Colorado Avalanche forward]. He plays with a great tenacity. He hunts down loose pucks. He absolutely possesses true grit. We really missed him when he was out. Our team kind of struggled a bit. Now that he’s back, we’re starting to establish a pretty good identity.”
Freshman Hannu Karru and sophomore Chris Sebastian also scored for the Eagles, who dominated the final two games of an unusual four-game series against the Oilers. A scheduling quirk had the two teams playing back-to-back, two-game weekend series against each other. Niagara improved to 12-0 lifetime against Findlay.
The Purple Eagles (13-12-3, 10-3-1 CHA) climbed over the .500 mark for the first time this season. They also earned a chance to defend their CHA tournament championship, clinching a playoff berth late Friday night after Alabama-Huntsville beat last-place Bemidji State 3-2. Niagara leads the CHA with 21 points.
NU used an aggressive offense to shackle the Oilers’ attack the whole weekend, outshooting Findlay 99-30. Niagara peppered freshman netminder Kevin Fines with 52 shots Saturday, while its freshman goalie, Scott Lindsay, turned aside 11 shots in recording his first collegiate shutout.
“There were some timely saves that Scott made that kept us in the game and he knows that,” MacDonald said. “He knows that we’re outshooting a team dramatically and now if they come down and score, the momentum of the game is going to shift dramatically. He did a great job with his focus.”
“I’ve really been focusing on getting mentally prepared for the games, so hopefully [I] can follow this one up with not getting pulled in the next one,” said Lindsay, who has been pulled twice in his seven starts.
Findlay (6-10-2, 4-8-2) lost its sixth straight game and has not won in eight games since beating Ferris State two weeks before New Year’s.
“We’re pretty disappointed with our effort,” Oilers coach Craig Barnett said. “It’s probably the two poorest games we played this year.”
The Eagles opened the scoring at the 18:32 mark of the first period as Karru deflected J.R. Holmes’ shot from the left point just over the goal line. That was the Nokia, Finland, native’s 10th goal of the season.
Welch gave NU a 2-0 lead in the second period. Kormanyos earned the assist and gave Niagara a chance to score when he intercepted a clearing attempt 30 seconds before the goal, preventing Findlay’s tired skaters from getting a much-needed line change. Sebastian fired a shot from the right blue line through traffic that slipped by Fines at 10:37 to give the Eagles a three-goal cushion heading into the third period. Niagara held a 39-7 advantage in shots through 40 minutes.
Welch scored shorthanded at 4:57 of the third period unassisted and recorded the hat trick at 16:32 on the power play. Kormanyos and Scott Crawford drew assists.
The Purple Eagles open a four-game road trip Friday night at Bemidji.