LEWISTON, N.Y. — It’s crunch time in the CHA, and Friday Niagara did just enough to advance its chances for a league championship by defeating a persistent but rookie-laden Wayne State Warrior team by a 4-1 margin at Dwyer Arena.
Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was quick to curb enthusiasm over his team’s victory. “I told the guys I was pleased with the first period and parts of the third,” Burkholder said. ” But if we play like we did in the second period in Kearney (the site of the CHA playoffs), we’ll be one-and-out.”
Both Niagara and Wayne State came off a bye week and played a surprisingly up-tempo and physical game in the first period. The Purple Eagles struck in the opening seconds of their first power play opportunity, as Barrett Ehgoetz buried a shot from down low after beautiful set-up passes from Brian Mills and Justin Cross.
With only four seconds left in the opening period, Niagara center Aaron Clarke scored the game-winner. Clarke, whose skating and stickhandling are reminiscent of recently retired NHLer Phil Housley, chipped the puck between the opposing Wayne State centerman on a faceoff, and then deftly recovered it in time to beat surprised Warrior goaltender Matt Kelly.
Wayne State owned much of the second period. Their lone tally came on the power play when Nate Higgins’ wrist shot was deflected by linemate Mark Nebus.
“The kids haven’t quit yet. They worked their tails off,” Wayne State coach Bill Wilkerson reflected. “But Niagara got two on the power play tonight … and we need our more experienced players to start scoring.”
Niagara regrouped early in the third to seal the victory. Senior Nick Kormanyos’ aggressive forecheking lead to an early Warrior penalty. Kormanyos won the ensuing draw back to defenseman Andrew Lackner, who rifled a slapshot past Kelly.
Ehgoetz notched his second of the night on a two-on-one from winger Justin Cross. Cross has worked his way on to Niagara’s top line by providing a burst of speed along the boards and gobbling up loose pucks in the neutral zone.
“I’ve made a conscious effort to move my feet a lot more,” Cross said. “I do my best to get the puck to these guys (Eghoetz and Joe Tallari), because they know what to do with it. My job is to fill in, make a hit, get a puck deep.
“When I chip a puck they are always there to grab it. … I’m enjoying being along for the ride.”
Niagara and Wayne State meet again Saturday night at Dwyer Arena to complete the season series, which the Purple Eagles lead 3-0.