NIAGARA, N.Y. — The curtain fell on Act I of Niagara’s season with a 4-2 decision over Wayne State, leaving an appreciative audience at Dwyer Arena pondering the Purple Eagles’ surging record (10-6-3,6-1-3 CHA) and positioning them as the team to beat in the second half of conference play.
For Wayne State, the holiday break could not have come at a better time, as the Warriors staggered back to Detroit mired in a five-game losing streak.
“Depending on how the weekend ended, I told our guys what was a good semester now has officially become a great one,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We are 19 games in, and so much goes on during a season. We’ve played without a weekend off and persevered with a lot of travel. Tonight was one of those typical hang-in-there, bend-but-don’t-break games. When we got our chances our guys came through.”
“We don’t take any solace with our improved play this weekend,” Wayne State assistant coach Frank Novock said. “Yes, we did some things well, created some chances, but in the end the score reads 4-2 them. It’s just a lot of little things we still have to work on.”
The contest began much like the previous night’s, as Wayne State asserted early control with a buzzing forecheck, yet the Warriors could not capitalize on their hard work.
Niagara’s Les Reaney continued to give fans reason to be in their seats by face-off with a series of crunching body checks on the Warriors. Reaney plays the early game much like Eric Lindross did in his pre-concussion days, lifting the opposition off its feet with punishing physical play, and drawing the ire of the Wayne State forwards.
“A couple of guys stood up between periods and said something to get us going,” Reaney said. “We knew the third was our last period before the holidays and we wanted to stay undefeated at home. We got that next goal and got it done.”
The two teams traded power play goals mid-way through the first period on textbook special-teams execution which Howie Meeker could not have scripted any better.
First, Wayne State scored when Jason Bloomingburg one-timed a feed from Nate Higgins. Then, Niagara evened things up after Reaney and Vince Rocco set up Niagara’s leading goal scorer Ted Cook for the tally.
When they finally do get around to mapping the genome of a goal scorer’s hands, Cook’s mitts should be a part of the sequencing sample. For the second night in a row, Cook scored the type of goal a true sniper rarely misses– the open look –right on the doorstep of Warrior’s goalie Will Hooper.
“It’s not hard to put them away with the open nets Les and Benti (Bentivoglio) have been giving me,” Cook said. “Burky let us know that we didn’t have a very good first period. Our second period was better.”
The second period was a stalemate. In the third the flood gates opened and a gush of Niagara goals poured forth.
Kyle Rogers started the Purple Eagle outburst on a magnificent unassisted effort, intercepting the puck with his skates, then charging in on Hooper as a Warrior defender was draped over his backside.
“What a story he (Rogers) has been,” Burkholder said. “That was the ballgame right there, his goal. He got in tight and roofed it. That’s the play of the game.”
Minutes later, Sean Bentivoglio feathered a pass to Cook for his second of the evening. Finally, Egor Mironov deflected a Tyler Gotto blast from the point.
Any thought of the Purple Eagles salting the game away quickly faded when Tylor Michel broke in alone on the Niagara net and slipped the puck past Juliano Pagliero’s pads to pull the Warriors within two. Niagara’s defenders had coughed the puck up a little too frequently and the Warriors narrowly missed their third goal on an ensuing power play.
As the final buzzer sounded, Cook and Reaney were already looking forward to December 30th when Niagara will face cross town rival Canisius.
“I’ll be on the ice everyday over the holiday,” Cook said. “Guys are already talking about that game with Canisius. We’ve got the momentum now and we have to keep it going.