LEWISTON, N.Y. — For the first 30 minutes of Friday’s non-conference hockey game at Dwyer Arena, the Niagara Purple Eagles overwhelmed Army with their energy and speed, so much so that it looked as if NU had a man advantage.
The Purple Eagles, of course, did not, but it did take the success of their power-play unit to secure the first win of the Dave Burkholder era as Niagara defeated the Black Knights 5-4 in overtime.
Senior assistant captain John Heffernan’s second power-play goal of the game at :42 in overtime proved to be the difference for the Eagles (1-2-0).
“Tough way to make a living, but that was fun, though,”said Burkholder, in his first year as Niagara’s head coach.
“We had a couple breakdowns that got them back in the game. They’re very opportunistic, but I think the whole key to this was how our whole bench handled things. We stayed very positive and we just got back to winning shifts.”
Scott Crawford, Dave Hominuk, and Thomas Clayton also scored as the Purple Eagles converted 3-of-6 power plays.
Army, playing its season opener, relied on the goaltending of senior Scott Hamilton, who prevented this game from becoming a blowout. Hamilton finished with 49 saves, and had 17 in the first period as Niagara hung on to a 2-0 lead.
“We put pucks to space, we used our legs and our speed to get the puck. We threw everything at the net,” said Heffernan, who also had an assist. “We made their goalie play really well. He let in five goals, but he was the star of the game tonight.”
The gritty Black Knights capitalized on their opportunities to overcome three two-goal deficits.
Niagara led 4-2 through 40 minutes and held a 36-13 shot advantage, but Army tied it at 7:06 of the third period on goals by Eric Joyce and Chris Casek. From that point on, however, the Purple Eagles increased the pressure and intensity – peppering Hamilton from all angles.
NU displayed a resolve that it did not show too often last season. The Eagles, who opened last weekend with losses at UMass-Lowell and UMass-Amherst, did not get discouraged when they could not score on their opportunities, and they did not fall apart after Army battled to forge
“I think you can see our team has matured a ton from last year,” said Crawford, a senior co-captain. “Even tonight, there was a maturation that went on during the game. I think last year, maybe guys would’ve panicked a little bit. But tonight, we stuck to our systems, we stuck to our game play. We didn’t waver.”
“We realized that we were outplaying them and we just rolled our four lines the last eight minutes and took it to them,” Heffernan said. “We didn’t even think about scoring that last goal, we just worried about winning each shift and look what happens, tonight was the night it went in for us.”
NU drew its final power play with 20 seconds left in regulation when Tim Quinlan was whistled for interference.
The Eagles ended it on their second shot of overtime. Sophomore Rob Bumbaco took a feed from junior defenseman Mike Bozoian at the blue line and passed to an open Heffernan near the left circle. He beat Hamilton with a one-timer to the short side.
Crawford and Hominuk scored to give NU a 2-0 lead through 20 minutes. Army pulled within a goal at 9:04 of the second when Chris Garceau scored off a feed from Tim Fisher on a 3-on-1. Niagara regained its two-goal lead when Clayton tipped in a one-timer by Heffernan on the power play at 11:18.
Army, a former member of College Hockey America and current resident of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, scored on its own power play at 13:51 as Matt Field one-timed a shot from the left point over the left shoulder of sophomore goalie Rob Bonk (14 saves). Heffernan fired in a rebound of a Hannu Karru shot 57 seconds later on the power play to give NU its final
Though Bonk wasn’t peppered like Hamilton, Bonk made several key stops – the biggie with 11:49 left in regulation when he snagged a shot by Tim Murphy from the left hash mark.
The same two teams meet at 7:00 p.m. Saturday in Dwyer Arena.