BUFFALO — Can someone play a little James Brown for Niagara junior goalie Rob Bonk, because he felt good Saturday afternoon.
The 6-foot-4 native of Fenton, Mich., who is in a heated competition for playing time with freshman Jeff VanNynatten and sophomore Ryan MacNeil, played perhaps his finest game as a Purple Eagle in a 4-1 win over local-rival Canisius in the consolation game of the Xerox Punch Imlach College Hockey Showcase.
Bonk finished with 25 saves, making several key stops to preserve Niagara’s second win of the season. But it was the poise and confidence he displayed that’s the most encouraging thing for NU. It’s been a while since Bonk has played as well as he did Saturday.
“I felt pretty comfortable in there,” said Bonk, who is 2-0 lifetime against Canisius. “We’ve got a goalie coach [Jim Pettie] that’s really worked with us on handling the puck and just coming out and challenging guys and playing with a lot more confidence. I felt good in there. I felt better than I have in a long time.”
Purple Eagles coach Dave Burkholder informed the goalies before the start of the season the No. 1 job is open. Burkholder’s decision to use VanNynatten in Friday’s 3-0 loss to No. 3 Michigan proves Bonk, who won his 29th career game, will have to earn the right to start.
“This was a huge step for Rob because I thought Jeff played OK last night, handled the puck well,” Burkholder said. “But for Rob to respond the way he did, shows me a lot. … He was great.”
The biggest sign of just how confident Bonk felt — he handled the puck well. Bonk and “comfortable handling the puck” just weren’t used in the same sentence the past two seasons unless they were accompanied by the words “is not.” Against the Griffs, he handled it often and with a purpose.
“He handled the puck better than he has in a year in a half,” Burkholder said. “He was making great decisions, game management-wise. He had a couple good whistles when they were all over us. Maybe a year ago, he wasn’t getting us a whistle when we needed it, but his game management was excellent.”
“He made numerous very good plays with the puck. That caused very good breakouts for us, where our defense was under pressure,” junior Chris Welch said. “I think that’s one of the things that he’s picked up from Jeff. He definitely showed that tonight.”
Welch finished with a goal and an assist, while sophomores Barret Ehgoetz and Matt Ryan, and senior Bernie Sigrist also scored for Niagara (2-2).
Senior Robert Carroll scored Canisius’ only goal of the two-day tournament. The Griffs, who get two more chances to play NU in January, fell to 0-2.
“We’re getting better by each game,” said Carroll, whose team lost 8-0 to No. 13 North Dakota on Friday. “Hopefully, we’ll start to turn it around come the season for the MAAC.”
Niagara scored twice in a 1:10 span late in the first period to seize control. Chris Sebastian skated down the left side and hit a wide open Ehgoetz cutting through the slot. Ehgoetz beat Griffs goalie Bryan Worosz high glove side at 16:22. Sigrist made it 2-0 off a 2-on-1 rush. He took a long pass from junior captain Dave Hominuk down the left wing, used junior linemate Hannu Karru as a decoy before weaving to the slot and beating Worosz stick side. Both goals came with the teams playing 4-on-4.
Canisius had a glorious chance to make it 2-1 with 38 seconds left, but Bonk made a solid glove save on a hard shot from the left circle by Ryan Corcoran.
Welch made it 3-0 at 2:28 of the second period, one-timing a shot in the slot past Worosz while getting knocked to the ice.
“It was a good pass by Paul Muniz. He laid it right there for me. All I had to do was redirect it,” Welch said.
Carroll scored at 10:43 of the second, beating Bonk from between the circles with a low shot. Ryan closed the scoring at 6:48 of the third period off assists by Welch and freshman Justin Cross.
NU lost junior scoring leader Joe Tallari to a game disqualification after receiving a spearing penalty at 5:13 of the first period. He has to sit out Friday’s game at Union.
“That’s totally against Joe’s personality,” Burkholder said. “We’ve had three stick infractions for five minutes in the history of our program. Without seeing the replay, I think he was trying to take the player’s hands away because there was a 50-50 puck.”