NIAGARA, N.Y. — Niagara and Robert Morris served up a bruising prelude to next week’s CHA tournament, where these same teams will meet in the opening round of play in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Saturday, the Purple Eagles prevailed by a 3-1 margin, but the game was not decided until the final moments after Sean Bentivoglio redirected a clearing pass from a frenzied Robert Morris attack and raced in on the empty net.
Bentivoglio could have easily salted the game away but he chose instead to wait for senior Ryan Gale to join the play. In a classy gesture amongst teammates, Bentivoglio gifted Gale his last goal at Dwyer Arena, and so concluded a turbulent regular season for the Purple Eagles.
“It’s Senior Night, and Ryan’s having a helluva year. He’s put in four hard years here and I thought he deserved the puck,” Bentivoglio said. “We’ve lost a lot of tight games this year. We just need to put 60 minutes together and that’s something we are working on.”
Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder was not anxious at the prospect of having to face the Colonials again for the third time in a week. “I was certainly impressed by the way Robert Morris played this whole weekend,” he said. “They stuck to their system and their goaltender (Christian Boucher) was just outstanding.”
A flurry of penalties opened the contest, yet neither team could get the jump on the man advantage. Midway through the period, Niagara scored after Barrett Ehgoetz, who has made a record-shattering career of creating chances behind the opposition’s net, feathered a beautiful pass to linemate Cliff Ketchen in the slot for the tally.
Niagara scored again in the second when Kris Wiebe beat Boucher on an innocent-looking wrist shot through the pads. Wiebe, however, could not stand his prosperity and shortly thereafter took a major penalty when he was whistled out of the game for hitting from behind.
Robert Morris failed to capitalize despite excellent puck movement on the power play. Boucher kept Niagara from blowing the game open when he robbed Niagara forward Matt Carruana with a scissors pad save on the setup from Bentivoglio.
The Colonials did cash in on the power play in the third after Jeff Gilbert sent a blast from the point past Niagara goalie Jeff Van Nynatten. Gilbert was a force throughout the contest and his timely goal stoked the Colonials’ confidence.
From that moment on, the game turned into a high-octane affair with end-to-end rushes by both teams, and another crucial save by Boucher on a Gale look from in front of the net.
Van Nynatten was equal to the task and made key saves as well, not the least of which featured the bizarre occurrence of the puck disappearing — literally — into Van Nynatten’s padding, as it could not be found for the ensuing faceoff.
Robert Morris attempted desperately to tie the game, pulling Boucher for the extra attacker with 1:10 remaining. The Colonials bottled up Niagara but could not get a second look at the Niagara net before Bentivoglio served Gale his departing shot.
Niagara and Robert Morris will meet again this Friday in the opening round of the CHA playoffs.