LEWISTON, N.Y. — One thing is for sure about Niagara: You never know what you get.
A week after an impressive weekend sweep of second-place Bemidji State, the Purple Eagles dropped a 4-1 decision to Air Force on Saturday at Dwyer Arena, accumulating one of a possible four points against the last-place club in College Hockey America.
Niagara, which has only won twice in its last eight games in a 2-5-1 slump, fell to 8-8-1 in CHA play and 17-14-1 overall. The Purple Eagles entered the game with 19 points in league play, trailing second-place Bemidji State by three points and clinging to a 3-point lead over Alabama-Huntsville.
Surging Air Force, 3-0-1 in its last four, improved to 4-10-2 in league action and 13-15-2 overall.
“I would say that again they came in and beat us at what used to be our way of doing things, playing physical and wearing teams down,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, who unlike Friday night did not keep his club in the locker room long after the game ended for a tongue lashing. “My hat’s off to Air Force. It shows you how good our conference is. I just hope we don’t play them in the playoffs.”
After Air Force’s Derek Olson scored the lone goal of the first period for a 1-0 Falcon lead, Shane Saum increased Air Force’s lead to 2-0 at 8:10 of the second period. But the big blow against Niagara came just 1:16 later in the period when recenty-returned Brian Gornick (broken hand) scored his sixth goal of the season for a 3-0 Air Force lead. Gornick, a 1999 Anaheim Mighty Ducks draft selection, took a nifty feed from Olson and redirected the puck past Niagara goalkeeper Mike Pataran.
Niagara got a sliver of hope at 16:11 of the period when Dave Hominuk scored his second of the season unassisted to slash the deficit to 3-1, but that was as close as the Purple Eagles would get.
Olson’s 20th goal of the season was the lone score of the third period.
“We came in hoping for a split, and wound up getting three points instead of two,” he said. “In our last six games, we have really been playing well.”
With this disappointing weekend behind them, Niagara must gear up and play at league-leading Wayne State on Friday and Saturday.
Niagara still had hopes of getting a first-round bye in the CHA Tournament March 14 to 16 at Dwyer Arena, depending on on how Saturday’s Wayne State-Bemidji State game wound up.
“Right now, byes in the tournament are far beyond our concern,” Niagara senior defenseman Scott Crawford said. “We are looking at getting our hockey team turned around and start playing good hockey again. We have to concentrate on working hard and playing Niagara hockey again. You get in a funk like this, and sometimes it is tough to get out of it.”
Burkholder, whose club has never defeated Wayne State, thinks the road trip is coming at the right time.
“I think it is a challenge for our guys,” he said. “They are a team that we haven’t beat. That should fire our guys up.”