NIAGARA, N.Y. — It wasn’t exactly David against Goliath, but Saturday’s game did match an established Division I club in Niagara against a newcomer in the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In a somewhat uninspiring contest that could have gone either way, Niagara utilized some good fortune in scoring the game-winning goal en route to a 3-2 victory.
This was a classic “in between” game for the Purple Eagles, who improved to 6-4-1 but barely escaped falling into a costly trap. Niagara came into this game after an exhausting series last weekend against CHA rival Alabama-Hunstville, and next week have to play fifth-ranked Cornell.
For the Tigers, who are now winless in six straight games (3-7-1 overall) and have not won since a remarkable upset of St. Lawrence on October 28, it was another painful episode in their ascension to Division I hockey.
With the score tied at two in a game that was not scintillating in any regard perhaps due to the rare afternoon start Niagara got a huge break and it won the game for them.
It started when Randy Harris and Jason Williamson streaked into the RIT zone in reckless abandon fashion with under eight minutes to go in regulation. As often happens in hockey, a routine play can quickly evolve into a watershed moment in a game, and that’s what transpired here.
“Jason and I were going on like a 2-on-2, so I just went wide,” Harris said. “Jason threw it off the boards in front of me so I could just skate and catch up to it because I had all the speed going into the zone. For some reason their goaltender (Jocelyn Guimond) tried to come out and play it. I threw it in front to where our guys were, and magically it went in. It hit some bodies and hit some skates, and found its way into the back of the net.”
After the game, RIT coach Wayne Wilson was philosophical.
“I didn’t really see it because when the puck was dumped in, I went to talk to someone,” he said of the winning goal. “That happens you hate to see anything like that happen. We’ve been competitive with everyone we have played. The thing I talked to our players about is, now we have to have guys step up and take the risk and take the chance to be the hero. When you put guys in the position to do that, there is also a chance they will be the goat.”
Unfortunately Guimond, who was solid in finishing with 21 saves, was the goat this time.
RIT had 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but could not hold on to either. Niagara, which trailed last Saturday, 3-0, and came back to win, mounted another comeback.
In the first the period Tigers took a 1-0 lead on Matt Harris’ goal before Scott Langdon’s first career goal tied it for Niagara. Midway through the second period Brennan Sarazin’s goal gave RIT another lead at 2-1, but again Niagara answered. This time Vince Rocco skated in on a 3-on-2 and elected to shoot it, and his velocity-laced blast whistled past Guimond’s outstretched glove.
The game stayed that way until Harris’ good fortune and Guimond’s misfortune gave Niagara the shaky conquest.
After the game, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder (a 1983 graduate of RIT and who still holds Tigers goalkeeping records) was relieved his club escaped with a victory.
“It wasn’t a great effort, but it is a game people say we are supposed to win, and it would be devastating to lose to an upstart team,” he said. “But they’ve been in every game they’ve played in. For whatever reason, we weren’t ready to go. We just didn’t play well.
“In spurts I thought we played very well. But it was kind of a real sloppy game. But it’s a comeback win and we have to move on.”
Both teams were inept and sloppy on the power play. Niagara, which entered the game ranked ninth nationally with the extra man, went 0-for-8. The Tigers were blanked in their six attempts.
Wilson, whose club will join Atlantic Hockey next season, did not seek any sympathy for himself or his players.
“I think we are now using the fact that we are a Division III program going to Division I as a crutch, and I think we have to throw the crutches away now,” he said.
“We’ve played some very good teams, and I think anyone in Division I is capable of beating anyone. I think we have to get away from using that as an excuse.
“I’m tired of the lessons, and I think we have to put it into practice now. And, I think we need some guys to step up and take charge.”
The Tigers play eight of their next 10 on the road.
Niagara faces a mountainous test next weekend, playing at Cornell Friday and playing the Big Red again Saturday.
“It is going to be a very exciting week,” Burkholder said. “It is Thanksgiving, it’s a time of reflection. It is a pretty good life we have here. To go up against a ranked team in Cornell is going to be awesome week.”