LEWISTON, N.Y. — The long wait for hockey has finally ended in Western New York.
It occurred on a magnificent fall afternoon as UMass-Lowell and Niagara faced off before a capacity crowd at Dwyer Arena, reaffirming for fans that the sport they revere is indeed alive –if not exactly well — in what promises to be a long winter of NHL discontent.
Cleve Kinley’s sneaky wrist shot from the point gave UMass Lowell a 3-2 victory over Niagara at :55 of overtime amidst a Lowell two-man advantage. But Kinley’s goal was hardly the story of the contest.
“There has never been a game in the history of hockey at any level that we all just had to witness,” said exasperated Niagara coach Dave Burkholder.
Burkholder’s dangling characterization of play was in reference to the 50 penalty minutes called by referee Dan Murphy, which allowed Lowell a two-man advantage no less than six times, and even gave the River Hawks a rare six-on-three late in the game.
By the time Murphy lowered his arm in the overtime stretch, Niagara had been flagged for two additional penalties ensuring that had play continued, the Purple Eagles would have spent the entire stretch with just three men.
All of Lowell’s goals came on the power play while Niagara’s occurred at even strength, yet it was difficult to gauge which team enjoyed the territorial advantage as only two minutes of the second period were played at even strength. Over half of Lowell’s 40 shots occurred on the power play and Niagara sat in the box for more than half of the contest. Incredibly, the Purple Eagles were called for the last eight infractions in a game that was neither physical or chippy.
“I’m happy to say I don’t coach the power play,” Lowell coach Blaise McDonald said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “I thought the game was called to the letter of the law … I love the game of college hockey. I love the five-on-five, the forechecking, banging sort of game. I’m not a big fan of the special teams being the major theme of a game.”
Both teams had been forewarned of the NCAA’s recent officiating directive to enforce the game more tightly, but if this season opener was a practical demonstration of the paradigm shift in officiating, the open ice that the directive seeks to create may well be nullified by an endless interruption of the game’s flow.
In a season where the NHL gifted the collegiate game a historic opportunity to gain fans, the NCAA may produce the unthinkable — a game more unwatchable than the pros.
“I have spent as much time coaching my kids on how to play under this new initiative,” McDonald said, “than I have on any other aspect of the game … We spent an awful lot of time trying to break the culture of the way the game is played … I think they (the NCAA) will stick to this right up until April. It’s up to us coaches and players to adjust.”
“We have a history here at Niagara of being one of the least penalized teams in the country in the last five years,” Burkholder said. “We take a lot of pride in that and it’s one of our team goals … but we just didn’t get a chance to play. For maybe five or six minutes of the third it was up-and-down, a very entertaining game. I think that’s what we all love about college hockey.”
Kinley’s winning tally had an almost inevitable quality to it, as all the suspense of the overtime period evaporated under the barrage of Murphy’s whistles. The partisan crowd reacted strongly to Murphy’s departure from the ice and he had to be escorted to his vehicle. Before that, Lowell received goals from Ben Walter and Elias Godoy. Niagara’s goals came from Jason Williamson and Pat Olivetto.