LEWISTON, N.Y. — Perhaps Niagara wants to play one of the Thursday games in the College Hockey America Tournament it hosts in three weeks.
How else can the third-place Purple Eagles’ lackluster performance in a 3-3 tie with the Air Force Academy on Friday at Dwyer Arena be explained, considering that the top two finishers in the CHA standings receive first-round playoff byes?
Niagara (8-7-1, 17-13-1), which entered the game three points out of second, was outworked and outhit in its own building. If not for Falcons goalie Zach Sikich giving up two soft goals, the Purple Eagles would not have even captured a point.
The Eagles held a team meeting for about 30 minutes following the game to discuss their latest poor performance. It looked as if Niagara was out of its funk after sweeping second-place Bemidji State last weekend, but that changed Friday night.
“They did most of the talking,” Eagles coach Dave Burkholder said. “The bottom line is as a staff and as a team we’re just not happy with the way we’re playing and something’s got to give and we’re trying to figure it out because we’re not a very good hockey team right now.”
“The easiest thing to do in a game is work hard and that’s something we’re not doing on a consistent basis,” said senior captain Scott Crawford, who scored two goals.
The Falcons (3-10-2, 12-15-2) depend on a solid work ethic to be competitive.
Junior Scott Zwiers scored the game-tying goal with 3:02 left in the third period to help Air Force collect a point. The Falcons rallied from a two-goal deficit and one-goal hole to extend their unbeaten streak to four games.
“I thought this was a very good road point for us,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “There’s not a lot to feel bad about on our part.”
The Falcons had two chances to win it in overtime. Brian Gornick, who scored in the first period, was stopped on a half-ice breakaway by NU sophomore Rob Bonk (nine saves) with 2:05 left. Seconds later, Gornick came out of scrum along the left wall with the puck for a close in breakaway, but Bonk poked the puck away.
“We would expect a little more sense of urgency,” Burkholder said. “We need everyone to just play their hearts out. In the beginning of the year, we were a team with four lines and you could trust anyone over the boards and they were going to compete as hard as they possibly could. That was when we were at the top of our game. We’ve lost that. We’ve got three guys who play well, nine guys who don’t play well. We’ve got to find it in a hurry.”
Sophomore forward Nick Kormanyos notched his 11th goal of the season for Niagara.
NU lost junior defenseman Mike Bozoian to a knee injury. Burkholder said doctors believe the injury is a torn MCL, and Bozoian is expected to have an MRI on Monday.
Freshman Andy Bozoian, Mike’s brother, and Mikko Miettinen received more ice time due to the injury and performed well, according to Burkholder.
The Eagles pumped in two goals in a 47-second span midway through the first period. Crawford picked up a loose puck along the left boards in the neutral zone, weaved his way into the zone and into the slot and wristed a shot past Sikich at 10:03. Kormanyos hammered in his 11th, firing in a rebound from a sharp angle. Dave Hominuk and Matt Ryan drew the assists.
Gornick redirected a shot by Spanky Leonard with 11.7 seconds left in the first period for his fifth goal. It was a power-play goal.
Starkey tied things at 9:02 of the second period with his 10th of the season, redirecting a point shot by Steve Mead. Derek Olson also earned an assist.
Crawford fired a shot from a sharp angle along the right wing into the net at 6:24 of the third.
“It was actually a pass,” said Crawford, who had his first career two-goal game. “It hit their defenseman and went into the net.”
Crawford’s performance was one of the few bright spots for Niagara.
“He has been a pillar for us,” Burkholder said. “He’s certainly a guy who doesn’t need postgame meetings. When the referees show up, he shows up and plays his best. I wish more guys would take a page out of his collegiate book.”