DETROIT — Niagara forward Matt Carruana had been knocking on Robert Morris’ door all throughout this nail biter of the semifinal CHA match-up. With 1:08 remaining, Carruana opened the door with a clutch deflection for Niagara’s third goal and sent the Purple Eagles on through to the championship game.
It was a game of inches but nothing of Carruana’s late heroics smacked of “puck luck.” Andrew Lackner played the puck to fellow defenseman Dan Sullivan along the blueline. With a Colonial defenseman fronting him, Sullivan shot low while Carruana, hovering around the slot, redirected the shot past a sprawling Robert Morris goalie Christain Boucher for the 3-2 lead, and the win.
The game could have turned either way, and featured more subplots than a Mario Puzo novel. These are two programs that know each other intimately, as three Colonials at one time skated for the Purple Eagles, and the assistant coach of Robert Morris, Nate Handrahan, is arguably the best defender to have played for Niagara.
Niagara jumped out to an early two-goal lead in the first period. Robert Morris, in an explosive thirty six second spurt during the second, tied the game at two The third period turned into a special teams grudge match as neither team could capitalize on the man advantage.
Robert Morris comfortably outshot Niagara by a 38-29 margin, and with 3:43 remaining nearly pulled ahead when Chris Margott was robbed by Niagara goalie Jeff Van Nyanattan with a clear chance in front of the Niagara net.
“I told our guys we had to be patient,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “There were times when they grabbed the momentum and I thought we persevered for the most part. They are a very difficult team to play against.”
“I was very proud of our team. This was a season you did not want to see end,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “We didn’t start off the season so well but if you could see how hard these guys work, every game, they put so much emotion and effort into each game.”
Niagara jumped into the game with fresh legs by way of a first-round bye. On the Purple Eagles first goal, Ted Cook chased down a soft dump in and skated to the right faceoff circle. The Colonial defender had solid position on Cook, but the Niagara winger was able to center the puck in front of Boucher and a hard charging Sean Bentivoglio one timed it for the Purple Eagles first goal.
Niagara’s second goal came via a faceoff draw won by Vince Rocco to Pat Olivetto who cranked a slapshot past the screened Colonial’s goaltender.
Robert Morris erupted in the second period on goals by Jake Sparks and Sean Berkstresser.
The second Colonial tally was set up beautifully by Doug Conley, who played an outstanding game at both ends of the ice for Robert Morris. Conley is one of the Colonials that once lined up for Niagara during his freshman season and he appeared to be locked in a tense battle with Niagara captain Jason Williamson throughout the game. Both Conley and Williamson were called upon by their respective coaches on the power play and the penalty kill and they did plenty of jawing at each other.
“We were roommates freshman year,” Williamson said. “And we really didn’t get along too well. He (Conley) told me he was gonna end my career, and I respect that. He always plays us hard. They have a bunch of guys who are looking to prove us wrong every time we meet up. ”
Both teams squandered key power plays.
“On the one unit, they closed us down trying to get the puck high,” Conley explained. “We got our shots. Their goaltender played well…Our penalty kill was working well and that kept us in there. We take pride in blocking shots. This team has a great work ethic. That’s what we are all about.”
But somehow, at some moment, it had to end.
“Toward the second I was getting a little frustrated,” Carruana said. “I think I had a season high number of chances and nothing to show for it. I don’t know how Sully (Sullivan) got that puck through, but he did and I was lucky. Boucher is a great goaltender.”
Carruana’s goal breathed new life into the Purple Eagles for at least one more game this year, while strangling a proud and gritty Colonials team.