NIAGARA, N.Y. — The beauty of college hockey was epitomized Friday on a stormy Western New York evening.
Going into the game was a consistently good Clarkson team — seemingly a very good team every year — which plays in an established and prestigious league. The Golden Knights’ opponent was a Niagara club which entered the season with a plethora of question marks.
Conventional wisdom would say Clarkson should and would win.
But Niagara was the better team, getting two goals from Ted Cook and Randy Harris and a sterling goalkeeping performance from Jeff VanNyatten for a season-opening 6-3 victory before 1,097 thoroughly entertained fans in Dwyer Arena.
The win was the first season-opening victory for the Purple Eagles since they defeated Hobart on November 7, 1997.
Niagara lost the majority of its offense due to graduation, and is counting on everyone to contribute offensively. That’s exactly what it got — at least on this particular evening — as Justin Cross and Marc Norrington also scored for the Purple Eagles.
“We’re going to need it,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said of different players scoring. “We said before the season it (scoring) is going to have to be by committee. I thought our top line of (Les) Reaney, (Sean) Bentivoglio and Cross were … they got us going. Every time they were on the ice they made something happen.”
With the score tied 1-1 early in the second period, Harris scored his first of the night, Cross and Cook followed with goals and all of a sudden it was 4-1 Niagara. But just 31 seconds after Cook’s goal, Max Kolu scored for Clarkson to slice the Niagara lead to 4-2, and the goal somewhat shifted the momentum as the Golden Knights started to pepper VanNyatten with a barrage of rubber.
But at 10:22 of the third period Cook scored a goal-scorer’s goal, as he streaked in on a breakaway, slipped the puck to his backhand in a risky maneuver and slid the puck past sprawling Clarkson goalkeeper David Leggio to give Niagara its three-goal lead back at 5-2.
“He might have saved the day when he made it 5-2,” Burkholder said of Cook’s tally. “His goal was a pretty big goal.”
With goals in the bank, the onus was on VanNyatten, who was sharp the rest of the way, finishing with a career-high 49 stops.
VanNyatten, who some thought did not perform up to his standards last season and missed two months with a broken finger, was high-quality in this one.
“I never really doubted myself,” he said. “I never doubt myself. I knew I was going to be ready to go this year. It was a pretty positive start by our whole team, and I was just a part of that.”
Chris Brekelmans and Jeff Genovy scored the other goals for Clarkson, which started out like it was skating in quicksand.
“I thought we actually played well in the second period,” said Clarkson coach George Roll, whose club outshot the Purple Eagles 23-15 in that period despite being outscored 3-1. “I thought in the first period we gave them too many Grade A chances.”