LEWISTON, N.Y. — Niagara forward Justin Cross came out from the wilderness of his sophomore season in time to give the Purple Eagles a much needed boost in their thrilling victory over Western Michigan by a 3-2 margin at Dwyer Arena.
Felled by an early season virus, Cross had been a bystander at most Niagara games but was recently reinserted into the lineup and produced the game-winning tally for the Purple Eagles before 1174 victory-starved fans. Niagara had not won a home contest all season but was able to push its record to 4-6, while Western slipped to 4-6-2.
“I had the two-on-one with (Joe) Tallari,” Cross said in reference to his game-winner. “The defenseman kind of committed too early and I was able to walk around him, and at that point, with how much I’ve been struggling, I just shot it.”
That shot, chest-high, found the smallest of openings on Bronco goaltender Scott Foster’s short side and broke a 2-2 tie with 1:43 remaining in the third period.
“I was happy to see Justin break through tonight,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “The spirit on our bench was tremendous even after we were outworked during that first period. I just felt that the team came together in the second and third and were accountable to each other. This is a big win for us.”
Western coach Jim Culhane, whose team had traveled over 7500 miles in three grueling weeks, took a philosophical approach to the loss.
“It was a very hard fought series with Niagara,” Culhane said. “Tonight’s game was one of lost opportunities for us. Niagara hung around and we missed a crucial power play in the third and allowed them to come right back.”
Goals by Reid Yantzi and Lucas Drake staked the Broncos to an early lead. It appeared as if Western was bound to skate Niagara right out of its home arena as it continually pressed the play in the first stanza
Late in the first, Niagara freshman sensation Jeremy Hall tipped in a Chris Welch wrist shot from the point and suddenly Niagara found new life.
The second period remained scoreless. This was where Niagara methodically began to assert itself and started to win enough battles to put them in a position to contend entering the final period
Hall went on to score a crucial power-play goal midway through the final stanza after Barret Eghoetz found him alone in front of the Bronco net. From there, play see-sawed as Western started to lose its fierce grip on the neutral zone, and Niagara’s transition game kicked into high gear, setting the stage for Cross’ late heroics.
Niagara heads back into conference action next week when it travels to Colorado Springs to face CHA foe Air Force. Western returns to Kalamazoo for a much deserved seven-game homestand at Lawson Arena.