NIAGARA, N.Y. — The hounds of January barked loudly outside Dwyer Arena on a bitterly raw evening, as the hockey faithful trudged through a convergence of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie snowdrifts to witness Niagara completing a sweep of Air Force by a 3-0 margin.
Niagara coach Dave Burkholder inserted eight freshman into his lineup and was pleased by the production of the underclassmen. The Purple Eagles extended their winning streak to three games and took small steps toward reclaiming their season through a balanced attack marked by a contribution of five freshmen on the scoring sheet.
“No question we’ve been looking to our other lines to relieve some pressure from our top line, and tonight Matt Carruana and Tayler Simpson came through for us,” Burkholder said. “I thought our third line played particularly well … And we’re just such a different team with Jeff (Van Nynatten) in net. The way he handled the puck tonight was exceptional.”
Air Force, meanwhile, was held to only 15 shots and went 0-6 on the power play. The Cadets enjoyed several point-blank opportunities but could not finish, a problem Air Force coach Frank Serratore noted has haunted his team throughout the season.
Niagara jumped on the board in the second period after freshman Trevor Mallon’s keep-in pass along the glass took an odd bounce resulting in a Matt Carruana one-timer from the slot that beat Cadet goalie Ian Harper.
Mallon has put together a string of impressive starts and adds a dimension to the Niagara blue line that has been absent this year — a puck carrier who can create space and opportunities. Carruana, another freshman, has logged considerable ice time for the Purple Eagles, and appears to have overcome a midseason lull with renewed confidence in his game.
Moments after Carruana’s score, Tayler Simpson pushed Niagara’s lead to 2-0 after his backhander was deflected off Air Force defender Brian Gineo’s outstretched leg and beat Harper top shelf.
Simpson, whose agitator style of play was straight out of central casting, inspired fellow freshmen linemates Tim Madsen and Mike Maier to generate Niagara’s most significant chances throughout the contest.
Air Force came close midway through the second when Brandon Merkosky rang the post. But the Cadets seemed to suffer from road legs while Niagara seized the momentum and kept pressure on Harper for the remainder of the period.
Ryan Gale added an insurance goal late in the third after Air Force removed its goaltender with three minutes left while on the power play. Gale’s empty-netter kept alive a torrid goal-scoring pace that places him fifth in the nation. Van Nynatten recorded his first shutout of the year, and was named the game’s first star.