LEWISTON, N.Y. — It may be early in the college hockey season, but the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers proved something to themselves Friday night: they can win at Dwyer Arena.
The Chargers defeated Niagara, 4-1, in a College Hockey America contest between the conference’s top two teams.
Alabama-Huntsville won for the first time in seven games at Monteagle Ridge, and positioned itself for the series sweep. The Chargers (5-2, 10-6) increased their lead to four points in the standings over the Purple Eagles (3-2, 10-5), and have won two of the three meetings between the clubs this year.
“We know the (CHA) tournament is going to be here this year. It’ll just boost our confidence up,” said senior forward Jessi Otis, who assisted on the Chargers’ first goal.
Craig Bushey and Jason Hawes each recorded a goal and an assist for Huntsville, while Jason Tinwick and Joel Bresciani also scored.
Sophomore Joe Tallari scored for Niagara, his eighth goal of the season.
Junior goalie Mark Byrne made 28 saves, 12 during the opening 20 minutes as the Chargers surged to a 2-0 lead. Byrne, who shattered both wrists during a work-related incident over the summer, made several key stops early to keep the game scoreless as the Eagles owned a territorial advantage, producing several chances with their speed.
“It’s a big boost for the guys. We play more confident with him in there,” Otis said. “He’s a good goaltender. He had a good season last year. We didn’t think we were going to get him back this early, but we’re really lucky we did.”
Goaltending usually has been the difference in games between these two teams. Last year, Rob Bonk shut out Alabama-Huntsville twice — helping Niagara win three of four games. He made 21 saves in a 5-2 win at the Von Braun Center on Nov. 9, but the sophomore got pulled for the second time in as many meetings against the Chargers. Bonk made nine saves, but yielded three goals — including two soft ones.
“I don’t like doing it to the kid, but it’s an accountability issue,” NU coach Dave Burkholder said. “We sit guys every night based on performance.”
Freshman Mike Pataran made four saves in his third relief appearance of the season for the Purple Eagles.
There was a whole lot of blame to go around for this Niagara defeat. The Eagles lost battles for loose pucks and played a little too chaotically against a composed Huntsville team.
“We were outhit, outworked and clearly the first-place team wanted it,” Burkholder said.
“They played well, but we kind of beat ourselves in a lot of situations on the ice,” said Tallari, who had an apparent second-period goal waved off when referee Bud Moran ruled the puck did not cross the goal line even though the goal light came on. “We just got to work hard again. The guys are pretty positive in there. We know we can do it.”
The Chargers cashed in their first quality scoring chance at 5:55 of the first period. Otis intercepted a poor clearing pass in the Niagara zone and fed junior Karlis Zirnis, who dished a pass to a wide open Tinwick near the right hash marks. Tinwick fired a shot over a sprawled Bonk for his fifth of the season.
Bresciani made it 2-0, ripping a shot from just inside the blue line over Bonk’s right shoulder. That was the junior’s fourth goal of the campaign.
Moments after Tallari’s no-goal, Bushey scored his fourth of the season with the Chargers shorthanded. He fired what seemed to be a harmless shot from just outside the left circle, but the puck slid by Bonk’s right skate into the corner of the net at 12:51.
Tallari scored off a scramble in front of the Huntsville net 36 seconds into the third period, but Hawes sealed the win with his fifth goal of the season at 10:15.