TROY, N.Y. — The Niagara Purple Eagles led the Rensselaer Engineers by one goal three different times. The fourth time the Purple Eagles had the one-goal lead, they made it a two-goal lead and then didn’t let the Engineers any closer as they advanced to the championship game of the 56th edition of the Rensselaer Holiday Hockey Tournament with a 5-3 win.
Two Sean Bentivoglio goals late in the second period with the game tied 3-3 was the difference in the game.
The Engineers last won the championship game of the tournament in 2001 and last played in the championship game two years ago.
“The seniors wanted to get to the championship game, they’ve never won, and there’s some frustration with that” said RPI head coach Seth Appert.
Niagara took just 1:12 to get on the board with the early lead as Matt Caruana swiped at a loose puck and surprised Jordan Alford over his shoulder. But RPI got it back quickly with a Kirk MacDonald power-play goal. Off of a misplay behind the net Paul Kerins sent a puck out front and MacDonald surprised Allen Barton and slid it under him.
Niagara scored the next goal on the power play as Ted Cook intercepted a clear by Peter Merth and fed it to Les Reaney who put it past Alford. But the Engineers answered right back on the power play. Matt Angers-Goulet blasted one that trickled through the pads of Barton.
The period ended with Niagara scoring again as Cook blasted one over the shoulder of Alford to give the Purple Eagles a 3-2 lead after one period.
The Engineers Jake Morissette would tie the game in the second when he got his own rebound after finding a puck shot by Christian Jensen and tied the game, but Niagara retook the lead just 29 seconds later when Sean Bentivoglio scored on the power play.
The Engineers had a golden opportunity to knot the game at 4-4 when they were given a five-on-three late in the second period, but Niagara turned the tables as that power play expired. Bentivoglio snuck one under Alford as he tried to kill the rest of the power play and the Purple Eagles took the 5-3 lead and never allowed the Engineers back into the game.
“The five-on-three kill was amazing,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder. “That changed everything, even the rink itself. It got a little quiet, and that goal was the change for sure.”
The Engineers had chances in the third period and poured on the pressure taking 32 shots, but 18 of them were blocked by the defense of Niagara and only eight got through to Barton, who is now 3-0-1 on the season.
The Purple Eagles were led by their first line of Bentivoglio, Reaney and Cook, who combined for eight points on the evening.
“There’s no secret to Niagara,” said Burkholder. “We go as they go. They work for all of their points. Down low they controlled the play, they controlled the puck. That was the difference for us. When they get it going, everyone else just follows suit.”
Alford suffered his first loss of the season and made eight saves before Mathias Lange replaced him after Niagara scored its fifth goal.
“He had a tough game tonight, but that’s sometimes the way it works,” said Appert. “He’s bailed us out many times this year, but tonight we gave Niagara too many easy looks. We knew they were skilled and the way that they played. But we gave them too many goals that they didn’t have to work that hard for. Power plays, quick transitions, too many two-on-ones, backdoor tap-ins.
“We didn’t make them work hard enough, whereas we were working very hard for the offensive opportunities that we had and the goal that we got.”
The Engineers (4-3-3) have now dropped two games in a row at home and will play Ohio State in the consolation game at 4pm on Saturday.
“Right now we’ve had two games where we haven’t had success and you start to feel down, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” said Appert. “It doesn’t have any place in competitive athletics because no one is feeling sorry for us.”
Niagara will play Colgate in the championship game.
“To be able to play for an in-season championship is really big for our guys and our program,” said Burkholder.