LEWISTON, N.Y. — Niagara and senior assistant captain John Heffernan both rebounded from forgettable performances in grand fashion Saturday.
Heffernan scored three of Niagara’s five first-period goals as the Purple Eagles held on for an 8-5 win over Alabama-Huntsville in a College Hockey America contest at Dwyer Arena.
Heffernan finished with four goals and had another called back because Niagara had a man in the crease.
“Talk about a bounce-back performance. He’s our power-play specialist and that’s what he does well,” NU coach Dave Burkholder said. “He’s one of our leaders and he acted like one tonight. He was great.”
The Purple Eagles also received scores from senior Thomas Clayton, sophomores Rob Bumbaco and Joe Tallari and junior Grand Island native Randy Harris in earning a split of the weekend series.
Niagara outskated Huntsville and won the one-on-one battles, something that did not happen in Friday’s embarrassing 4-1 defeat to the first-place Chargers (5-3, 10-6). The second-place Purple Eagles (4-2, 11-5) trail Huntsville by two points in the standings. The two teams split the four-game season series.
NU sophomore goalie Rob Bonk finished with 25 saves, rebounding from Friday’s performance in which he got pulled after yielding three goals on 12 shots.
Niagara chased Chargers junior goalie Mark Byrne after 20 minutes. Byrne finished with nine saves before giving way to sophomore Adam MacLean (17 saves).
Ryan Leasa, Karlis Zirnis, Steve Charlebois, Tyler Butler and Jared Ross scored for Alabama-Huntsville. Ross’s goal pulled the Chargers within 6-5 with 8:02 left.
The Eagles replied 1:16 later when Harris forced a turnover at the Huntsville blue line and fed a pass to sophomore Hannu Karru for a two-on-one break. Karru slipped a nifty behind-the-back pass to Tallari between the hash mark and he converted to give NU a 7-5 lead. Harris scored another insurance goal off a Tallari assist with 1:56 left.
“We feel we didn’t play well tonight,” Huntsville assistant coach Lance West said. “We got it to 6-5 and let it go. We’re not happy with (the split) because of the way we played tonight.”
Niagara was not happy with the way the Chargers played either. Alabama-Huntsville played chippy after falling behind 5-1. The Chargers annoyed the Eagles enough to pull within 6-4 before the second intermission. Burkholder vented after the game.
“I think Huntsville embarrassed college hockey and more so the CHA for the way they acted in the second period,” Burkholder said. “It’s a game where it tests your integrity as players not to retaliate, not to give into the dirty play that was happening out there.”
“I just think it was another mature step for our team to bounce back and to fight through an awful spectacle like that tonight because it was really, really hard to keep our composure, stay disciplined and play,” Heffernan said.
Heffernan scored NU’s first two goals on power plays. Both were on one-timers from the left circle.
“Put him out on the flank and he’s going to score probably 8 out of 10 bombs,” Burkholder said.
Heffernan’s performance mirrored that of the Eagles. He did not play well in Friday’s defeat, but he and the Purple Eagles redeemed themselves in a major way Saturday.
“(Friday) night, maybe I wanted it too bad,” Heffernan said. “I think it affected me. Tonight I just showed up and played a hockey game like I do every other weekend, got off to a great start and things just went from there.”
“If we don’t come to play and work hard, we’re an ordinary team,” said senior captain Scott Crawford, who finished with three assists. “If we come to work hard and play the way we’re capable of, we can play with any team in the country. That’s the lesson we learned the hard way (Friday) night.”
Niagara led 2-1 after Leasa scored for the Chargers at 14:32 of the first period. The Eagles replied with three goals in under four minutes. Bumbaco stuffed in the rebound of a Clayton shot at 15:42. Heffernan completed the hat trick at 17:45, collecting a loose puck in the slot area and whipping a backhander through traffic into the far corner.
Clayton one-timed a Jordan Meloff feed from the right hash marks at 18:16.
Heffernan scored his fourth of the game at 9:29 of the second period off assists by sophomore Paul Muniz and Crawford. That goal came 29 seconds after Zirnis scored for the Chargers.