NIAGARA, N.Y. — In last season’s opening-day tilt between Merrimack and Niagara, the Warriors made life miserable for the visiting Purple Eagles with a tremendous defensive effort.
But Saturday Niagara served up a cold dish of karmic hockey, stifling Merrimack with a team commitment to blocking shots, clearing the zone and winning key faceoff battles, as they eked out a 1-0 victory and advanced to 2-3-1 on the season.
Senior Niagara goaltender Juliano Pagliero turned away all 31 Merrimack shots. The Warriors actually attempted a staggering 58 shots, even though they gave the hosts six extra power-play attempts. Through it all, Pagliero stood tall and swallowed the puck when his team needed breathing space, particularly during the first 10 minutes of the opening period.
“Coming off that tough game against Michigan,” Pagliero said. “I watched a lot of video with Coach (Greg) Gardner. He reinforced to me that I was playing well, but not well enough. I needed to get hungrier for the puck. And that’s what I concentrated on tonight.”
Pagliero’s stellar play was almost voided by Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder, who admitted after the game that he was leaning toward benching Pagliero in favor of starting sophomore Adam Avramenko. A spirited discussion with assistant coaches Jerry Forton and Greg Gardner changed Burkholder’s mind.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that Jerry and I don’t battle with each other over one thing or another,” Burkholder said. “Tonight was the night Pagliero won the game for us. Last year, he did it on many occasions. I wanted to rest him, if for anything, to give him a mental break after the Michigan game. ”
“Last week we defeated Army 1-0,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said, “and I would say that I wasn’t nearly as pleased with our effort then as I was tonight. We killed nearly half the game in penalty minutes and still outshot them. That’s pretty good. Niagara plays a hard game. They have a lot of skill. I have tremendous respect for Coach Burkholder’s teams. We need these tough early-season games to get ready for our upcoming in-conference matchups.”
The lone goal of the contest came via the Niagara power play. Freshman Sam Goodwin notched his first collegiate goal with a nearly-perfect setup from defenseman Tyler Gotto midway through the second period and the Purple Eagles held on from there.
Niagara seemed to gain its legs after Goodwin’s goal and as the contest wore on a gritty effort shook off any bitter taste left by the Michigan defeat. Twice the Purple Eagles killed off five-on-three situations. Pagliero credited his defense for his first shutout of the season.
“Travis (Anderson) had an incredible presence out there tonight,” he said. “You could just feel him and Ryan (Annesley) take control of the game when we needed it. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have our D playing so tough. Dan Sullivan is the most unheralded player on our team. Nobody notices him because he doesn’t do anything wrong.”
Niagara still has to play Maine, RIT and Canisius before entering regular season CHA play against Bemidji State on November 21.