NIAGARA, N.Y. — The changing of the seasons epitomizes what is happening with the Niagara University hockey team.
Niagara graduated six seniors from last season’s squad and have only two returning seniors, left wing Chris Moran and right wing Igor Mironov.
Niagara will be suiting up 10 freshmen and seven sophomores, with only three juniors in its final College Hockey America season. The league is disbanding, and next season the Purple Eagles will move to Atlantic Hockey.
“I was really pleased with our defense, and all of our young guys played well,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said after Saturday’s 5-2 exhibition triumph over York University. “We have a lot of depth at every position.”
With the season opener just days away, the youngsters’ exhibition game test against York was paramount in importance.
However, upperclassman Paul Zanette turned out to be the star of the show Saturday, scoring two third-period goals to lift the Purple Eagles to a 5-2 triumph.
“As a coaching staff, we are real happy where we are,” Burkholder said. “This was our first game and their fourth, so I was a little concerned going into the third period that we would have our skating legs, but that wasn’t a factor. I am happy where we are system-wise as well. I thought we looked good organization-wise and system-wise.”
Moran, who scored a goal and added an assist, is extremely confident the freshmen will contribute immediately.
“We knew that coming in,” he said about the huge rookie class being asked to play major roles this season. “The freshmen have stepped in and played well in practice and today (Dan) Weiss scored a goal. We have a big group and they are ready to play, so it should be exciting.
“All these guys are junior tested and are ready to go. They did the work over the summer and they are ready to step in and play.”
After Weiss tied the game 2-2 just 1:11 into the third period, Zanette went to work. Standing at the edge of the crease, the junior left winger redirected a laser-like slick pass from Moran past York goaltender David Davenport, giving Niagara a 3-2 advantage at 5:24.
Zanette made it 4-2 eight minutes later when he tipped in C.J. Chartrain’s pass. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day for Zanette, who suffered a serious knee injury during the middle of last season and missed the rest of it.
“To come out and play a game like that is a confidence booster,” said Zanette. “It (the knee) feels real good, back to 100 percent.”
Burkholder was also ecstatic about Zanette’s recovery and performance on Saturday.
“I couldn’t be more pleased for him after the rehabilitation and the long summer, and the game he had,” Burkholder said.
Moran and Jeff Hannan scored the other goals for Niagara, which outshot the visitors 32-18. Jessie Grespan and Tyler Harrison scored for York.
Niagara opens Friday night against Colgate.