NIAGARA, N.Y. — In a frustrating season that has included more than its share of body blows, Niagara finally got to deliver the punch to the gut.
Buoyed by a raucous crowd, the Purple Eagles produced a 5-4 upset of eighth ranked Bemidji State in the opening round of the final College Hockey America postseason tournament on Friday night at the Dwyer Ice Arena at Niagara University.
The CHA will disband after this season.
Weve had a lot of big wins in 14 years, and this is certainly up there, said Purple Eagles head coach Dave Burkholder. Its just how we had to keep battling back. The ebb and flow, the momentum swings were incredible, (but) we were unfazed and were able to come back and answer it.
Niagara — the fourth of four seeds after struggling to just five wins in conference play — held a 4-2 lead deep into the third period on a pair of goals from senior defenseman Tyler Gotto, senior center Ryan Olidis 14th marker of the season, and a shorthanded tally by speedy winger Bryan Haczyk.
The top-seeded Beavers and the seventh ranked scoring offense in NCAA Division I hockey refused to go quietly over the escarpment. Bemidji State peppered Purple Eagles goaltender Chris Noonan with 17 of its 36 shots in the final period and, with 9:35 remaining, cut the Niagara advantage to 4-3 on Shea Walters unassisted heater from the high slot.
Thats when things got funny — again.
The game had already offered its share of oddities. The high-scoring Gottos game-opening goal, a hard shot from the right point at the 4:29 mark of the first period, was answered by a similar right-point slapper 43 seconds later from Bemidji State blueliner Chris Peluso — his first goal of the season.
After Olidis gave Niagara a 2-1 lead with 33 seconds remaining before intermission, Beavers winger Ryan Cramer tied the score at 2-2 at 11:31 of the second period when his wrister from the right circle trickled through Noonan.
The goaltender had appeared to snag the initial shot before the puck reappeared at his skates.
The Purple Eagles would get revenge. Gottos second goal came on the power play at 15:46 of the second period to give Niagara a 3-2 lead, and Haczyk extended the advantage to 4-2 after finishing a shorthanded breakaway with 1:16 remaining before the second buzzer.
You look for jumps on the kill, Haczyk explained. Getting that puck over by the wall, (teammate Paul Zanette) knew I was going to streak to the middle. He laid a nice saucer pass out there for me, and luckily I beat the defenseman (to the puck), and beat the goalie.
After Walters cut the Purple Eagles lead to 4-3 midway through the third period, Niagara winger Egor Mironov rebuilt the two goal cushion 75 seconds later, rattling a shot off the boards behind the Bemidji State net that bounced to the crease and was tapped behind Bakala.
The Beavers responded almost immediately. Cramer knocked a bouncing puck through Noonan and, with 7:15 left on the clock, Bemidji State was back within one goal at 5-4.
The Purple Eagles were calmed by strong words from Gotto, preserving the biggest win in a season that has included 11 one-goal losses and 10 defeats to nationally ranked teams.
I was getting pretty emotional, Gotto said. I reminded everyone that we just got to stay calm and keep it simple and go back to how we were playing in the first. We were sitting back a little bit, let them get a little bit of a momentum swing. Then we started forechecking like we did in the first two periods, and we started getting into their zone and getting the momentum back.
The Beavers are still strong candidates for an at-large bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament, but Beavers head coach Tom Serratore was not willing to make assumptions after the loss.
All we have to think about now is that we have a game tomorrow night thats a very important game for BemidjiState, Serratore said. Thats what Im focused on right now.
The Purple Eagles (12-19-4 overall, 6-10-2 CHA) face Alabama-Huntsville in the conference championship on Saturday at 8 p.m. The Beavers (23-9-3, 14-3-1) meet Robert Morris in the afternoon consolation game.