NIAGARA, N.Y. — Vermont very rarely awards game pucks at the end of a hockey game.
Saturday, following a 4-2 victory which gave the Catamounts a weekend sweep of a gusty Niagara squad, they did just that.
Head coach Kevin Sneddon and his staff presented the game puck to goalkeeper Travis Russell, who recorded 22 saves in his first appearance since February 11.
Russell’s solid performance parlayed with killer special teams won the game for the No. 11 Catamounts, who improved to 6-0-0 this season.
The Purple Eagles, who got goals from Matt Caruana and the still red-hot Randy Harris, dropped their second straight and fell to 3-3-0.
“I told (Niagara) Coach Burkholder after the game, and with no disrespect to the other teams we played, but I thought that was the hardest working and best team we have played all year,” he said. “We are a better team having come to Niagara and played these guys. I think they are going to do very well this year.”
The story of this game was the power play, more specifically, Vermont’s prowess and Niagara’s ineptitude with the extra man. Vermont moved the puck with a relentless purpose all afternoon and it resulted in three power play goals.
After Caruana scored just 36 seconds into the game to give the Purple Eagles a 1-0 lead, Vermont tied it at one on the power play at 6:32 when Torrey Mitchell’s shot appeared to be stopped by Niagara goaltender Jeff VanNynatten. But he did not get all of it, and the puck still had enough steam to trickle in.
Just before the end of the first period, another power-play goal gave the Catamounts a 2-1 lead when Brady Leisenring cut boldly to the Niagara net, deked defenseman Andrew Lackner and beat what appeared to be a surprised and possibly screened VanNynatten.
Early in the second period, a mildly fascinating scenario was displayed.
Just minutes after a Cliff Ketchum goal was disallowed, the Purple Eagles tied the game when Harris banged in his own rebound at 5:53. Harris has been a model of consistency for the Purple Eagles, registering a point in all six games. He now has four goals and six assists for 10 points.
A minute or so after the goal, an enraged Niagara coach Dave Burkholder embarked on a frenzied gesticulation–angrily hurling his sport coat in disgust and calling a timeout, as Niagara players literally climbed on top of each other to listen in. The powwow only lasted 10 seconds or so, and play resumed.
“It was just a timeout to say, ‘Yes, there is no quit here,’” Burkholder said. “‘Let’s play harder.’ I was just trying to fire up the troops. It worked until they went on the power play again.”
Just two minutes after the short tirade, Vermont struck still again with the extra man as Chris Myers poked in a rebound of a Jaime Sifers shot to give Vermont the lead for good at 3-2.
Myers later iced the victory with an empty net goal.
The Catamounts were an exceedingly efficient 3-for-7 on the power play with 18 shots.
For the Purple Eagles, the complete opposite was true, as they were 0-for-7 with only eight shots. In the two games Niagara was 0-for-14 on the power play.
“We were not good at attacking the net,” Burkholder said. “We got nothing off of the goal line. I think that was the difference. They fronted our sticks so well; our defensemen didn’t want to shoot it through the bodies. Usually we are looking for a backdoor pass, but that wasn’t open for two straight days.”
Right before heading out on a picturesque Western New York late afternoon for a short bus ride and then flight back to frigid Burlington, Russell seemed relieved to get action and an important road conquest in one fell swoop.
“It’s been a while since I played,” he said. “It’s been tough coming off of the injury. But I have worked hard, and it worked out today.”