LEWISTON, N.Y. — Though Niagara is playing with the energy and determination necessary to win against good teams, the wins are not piling up because of mistakes.
Sunday afternoon was no different. The Purple Eagles out-hit and outplayed Mass.-Lowell for most of the game. They possessed a 3-1 lead with 26 minutes left, but three gaffes was all it took for the River Hawks to make coach Blaise MacDonald a 4-3 winner in his return to Niagara?s Dwyer Arena.
Junior Anders Strome scored the game winner on a breakaway with 1:42 left.
?It was clearly a game we didn?t deserve to win,? MacDonald said. ?Our inability to generate offense was not so much created by our approach as much as Niagara played great. We couldn?t quite match their intensity and execution.
“I thought in the third period, we got stronger as the game went on. We changed our focus from winning the game to just winning each shift and as a result, I think we started to shift the momentum.?
Junior Joe Tallari scored all of NU?s goals, but two goals by senior Ed McGrane along with singles by freshman Brad King and Strome secured Lowell?s third straight win.
Niagara dropped its second in a row and fell to 2-4.
The Purple Eagles have played well enough to have at least a .500 record. Yet, a goal post here, a crossbar there, a defensive breakdown or some other bad break at key times have turned potential wins into defeats.
?We know we can play well. We have to play our game,? Tallari said. ?For some reason, we?re not getting ?Ws? against the top teams. We have to dig deep and find out what we?re doing wrong there and bear down on our chances.?
MacDonald, who coached at NU during the program?s first five seasons, noticed a difference in this year?s Purple Eagles compared to the teams of the past two seasons. One of those teams he coached to a 14-win season, the only losing season of his career. He saw last year?s team at Tsongas Arena in Lowell, where the River Hawks beat Niagara 7-3.
?I just see such a great harmony with this Niagara team,? MacDonald said. ?Energy kind of feeds off of each other. They?re excited. They?re passionate, which I?m not sure they had last year maybe, just from the game film I watched. But this team here, this team?s going to beat some real good teams and they should?ve beaten us this afternoon. I think what they lack is just a little more experience and they?ll get that over time.
?These games here, as much as you want to feel good about playing well, you still want to be angry that you didn?t get it done and that?s a pretty good growth opportunity.?
Junior Chris Welch of Tonawanda is tired of moral victories and wants those that count in the standings.
?It?s been a struggle ever since I?ve been here. We?ve had many of these occurrences,? said Welch, who finished with two assists. ?We?re definitely at another level compared to last year. There?s no question about it. It?s just we need to learn to close the deal and that?s another step to being considered among the top echelon in college hockey, [which is] where we want to be.?
The first thing to go against Niagara — Tallari?s bid for his fourth goal hit the post during a power play midway through the second period.
That gave the River Hawks hope and McGrane?s second goal of the game was the gift they needed to snatch the momentum from the Purple Eagles. McGrane?s power-play strike at 15:38 slipped between the pads of junior goalie Rob Bonk. It was a slap shot from the left circle with no screen.
?It?s a goal that Rob wants back,? NU coach Dave Burkholder said. ?I think he?d sit up here and say he needs to make that save for us. That?s pretty demoralizing for your club. That?s got to stop happening. We?re a pretty good team, we?re controlling the tempo of the game and that gets them back in it.?
Bonk did make a game-saving stop on a breakaway during the closing seconds of the second period on Mark Concannon to keep the score 3-2. He made some solid saves in the third period and finished with 27.
Yet, two breakdowns on faceoffs in the final 20 minutes produced
Lowell?s final two goals.
?It was our mistakes. We got lazy a few times. They?re tying goal might have been my fault actually,? Tallari said. ?Their third goal was their forward or defenseman that came in and put the puck in the net. The guy shouldn?t be there. If you look at the film, it?s our little mistakes that?s killing us.?
King, a forward, tied things by firing a rebound kicked into the slot area past Bonk at 6:52. Freshmen linemates Mark Pandolfo and Danny O?Brien earned assists as the River Hawks (3-1) won the faceoff in Niagara?s zone.
NU lost the draw in Lowell?s end on Strome? goal. Junior defenseman Jerramie Domish chipped the puck out to center and Strome caught up to the loose puck, outracing the Niagara player who fell during the race. He deked Bonk, who attempted to poke check the puck.
The Purple Eagles had three faceoffs deep in the Lowell zone in the final 18 seconds, but their best chance to tie came with 3.1 seconds left. NU?s Barret Ehgoetz won the draw back to Tallari, who got off a hard shot that was stopped by sophomore goalie Chris Davidson (20 saves).
The Purple Eagles return to action Friday and Saturday at No. 7 North Dakota.
Notes: Niagara freshman goalie Jeff VanNynatten was scratched because of an injury to his glove hand. He got slashed in practice Saturday during a drill and the hand is wrapped. He will have more tests done today and the timetable for his return in uncertain.