NIAGARA, N.Y. — Niagara forward Randy Harris stormed down the left wing in the second period of a tension filled 0-0 game against Bemidji State.
“Beat him,” came the call from the Purple Eagle bench.
So Harris did just like the night before he turned on the jets and gained an angle on the Beaver defender. His first shot was stopped by goaltender Matt Climie, but Harris scooped up his rebound and sped around the net for the short side goal.
Moments later, Niagara freshman Ted Cook broke out of a mini-dry spell and scored the Purple Eagles second goal, unleashing a flurry of further Niagara goals en route to a 5-1 victory. With the win, Niagara secured a firm grasp of second place in the CHA.
Meanwhile, Bemidji sagged to third place and was left waiting until next weekend for redemption when they will face league-leading Alabama Huntsville in their final showdown of the regular season.
“It’s fitting senior Randy Harris got us going tonight,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think their goalie thought he was going for the wrap around, but he ended up shooting short side. We were jumpy until then, but that seemed to calm us down.”
“We’ve been a team searching for our identity,” Purple Eagle goaltender Jeff VanNynatten said. “We’re a different team from the one that won the CHA two years ago. We have a lot of underclassmen playing well beyond their years. This whole weekend has been huge for us and hopefully we’ve found something to build on.”
Van Nynatten’s tip to the underclassmen notwithstanding, it was Niagara’s departing senior class that carried the Purple Eagles in their sweep of Bemidji this weekend. Tonight was Senior Night at Dwyer Arena, and Niagara’s departing class of Jason Williamson, Justin Cross, Randy Harris, Andrew Lackner and VanNynatten played each shift with a purposefulness that comes after enduring the ups and downs of four years of Division I hockey.
“It goes so fast,” said Justin Cross who grew up learning the game on roller blades in the dust bowl of southern California. “You never think it’s going to end . It’s the last time we’re putting on the white uniforms here. I’m just glad we got the wins and this leads to something else.”
“They played to win a championship tonight,” Bemidji coach Tom Serratore said. “My hat’s off to them. They played like they could see the light at the end of the tunnelI just told my guys that we have to erase the weekend from our memory bank. We can’t dwell on it. We have a huge series against Huntsville and we still have a shot at second place.”
Niagara broke the game open in the second period. Vince Rocco skated into the Bemidji zone and ripped a wrist shot that Climie bobbled. The puck dribbled over the goal line, extending Niagara’s lead to 3-0, and the rout was on.
Bemidji, frustrated and out worked, took a series of undisciplined penalties leading to Niagara’s fourth goal. On the power play, Ted Cook and Rand Harris worked the give-and-go-one-timer to Climie’s short side as Harris notched his fifth goal of the series.
Les Reaney, the diesel-like Niagara centerman, tallied shortly after the Harris goal for a 5-0 lead. Only Brandon Marino’s late bid, on an assist from Ryan Huddy, ruined VanNynattan’s shutout.
Niagara travels to Robert Morris next weekend. The Purple Eagles still have a chance to secure first place in the final CHA standings, dependant upon the outcome of the Bemidji/Alabama series. At the very least, the Purple Eagles have an excellent prospect to secure a first round bye in the tournament should the amass points against Robert Morris in the final two games of the season.