NIAGARA, N.Y. — Vermont extended its unbeaten streak to five, downing the home standing Niagara Purple Eagles 3-2 in a tough contest for the Catamounts.
Taking advantage of a flat Niagara team in the first period, No. 11 Vermont pushed the lead to 2-0, then held on as the Purple Eagles surged midway through the second and battled hard to the end.
For Vermont head Coach Kevin Sneddon, the final whistle could not have come soon enough.
“Tonight we eked out a victory,” Sneddon said. “We expected nothing less from Niagara. They are a very good team, and at times they gave us all sorts of problems. We’ll definitely have to play better tomorrow because I’m sure they will come at us.”
“I thought we tied them the second and third period,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “But that first period was our worst hockey all season, and unfortunately it came against the 11th ranked team in the nation.”
Mark Lutz opened the scoring for Vermont on the power play after he drew a fronting Niagara penalty killer to the ground and stepped around him for a low wrist shot, beating Purple Eagle goaltender Jeff Van Nynatten to the stick side.
The goal sliced through a lackluster opening to the contest by both teams and gave Vermont a spark that led to its second tally from Torrey Mitchell at the beginning of the second period. Vermont’s top line of Mitchell, Brady Leisenring and Jeff Corey took advantage of a bad Niagara line change and sprinted up ice after Corey made a tremendous back check to jumpstart the play. Leisenring fed Mitchell, who raced through the Niagara zone and sent a wrist shot soaring by Van Nynatten.
At that point, Vermont seemed poised to salt away a tough road contest, but Niagara defenseman Scott Langdon put the Purple Eagles back in the game. His contribution came not through any offensive play, but by administering a punishing hit on a rushing Vermont player. Langdon’s crunching blow was enough to get the Purple Eagles up on the bench and involved in the game.
From there, the Purple Eagles mounted a swarming fore check that culminated in Niagara co-captain Jason Williamson fishing the puck off the boards and sending linemate Randy Harris away on a one-on-one. Harris deked his defender and roofed a backhander past Vermont goalie Joe Fallon.
“That’s a play Willy (Williamson) and I work on all the time,” Harris said. “It has gotten to the point where he knows where I’m going to be at and he doesn’t have to look. We just didn’t get it started early tonight. It’s something that we can correct.”
Vermont regrouped as the third period began and scored on a pretty 3-2 rush when defenseman Tomko Slavomir feathered a pass to Reese Wisnowski, who buried the goal.
Any Catamount thoughts of sitting on the lead quickly vanished after Niagara forward Mike Maaier stripped the puck from a Vermont breakout and broke in alone on Fallon. Maier scored with a wrist shot, closing the gap to 3-2, and setting the stage for an end-to-end final period.
Niagara’s Sean Bentivoglio–a constant threat throughout the evening–nearly tied the game after he snuck behind the Vermont defense and was hauled down from behind as he closed in on Fallon. But no call was made from referee Dan Murphy, and the Catamounts preserved the victory.
The two teams meet again tomorrow at 2:00 pm to conclude the series.