NIAGARA, N.Y. — Perhaps it was fitting that the final game in College Hockey America history turned out to be a wild and tumultuous affair, a real barnburner.
Keenan Desmet scored at 1:34 of overtime and goaltender Cameron Talbot recorded 43 saves to give Alabama-Huntsville a 3-2 victory over Niagara and the final College Hockey America Championship in front of 1,818 who jammed into Dwyer Arena.
This game had unmitigated intensity, drama, ferocious hits, and controversy in the form of two goals called back, and a sense of history, since it was the league’s last ever game. When the proverbial dust settled, the Chargers advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second time while the Purple Eagles went home with broken hearts.
“Our university has gone through some tough stuff lately, and it is a good win for the university and the people there,” Huntsville coach Danton Cole said. “It is a big win for our team and I am real happy for the young men on our team.
“We are real proud to be moving on.”
Desmet propelled the Chargers into the promised land when he banged in a rebound of Neil Ruffini’s point shot from just outside the crease over Niagara goaltender Chris Noonan’s glove.
“Ruffini had a one-time shot and it came out to the slot,” Desmet said. “My eyes lit up and I was right on the puck and put it in the back of the net.”
Just 26 seconds earlier, Niagara’s Jim Burichin was whistled for slashing on a call Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was not pleased with.
“It was an overtime call that didn’t need to be called,” he said bitterly. “It was a real soft call in overtime.”
However, there was drama long before that scenario transpired.
Late in the second period, Cody Campbell gave the Chargers a 2-1 lead when he stood all alone at the edge of the crease and redirected Andrew Coburn’s pass from the other side of the net past Noonan, who could not slide over in time to prevent the picturesque goal.
Niagara showed its collective grit when, with Huntsville playing in its safe mode, Marc Zanette took a pass from Bryan Haczyk just outside the crease and snapped it over Talbot’s glove to tie the game at two and send the crowd into an uproar with 16 minutes left in the third period.
Both clubs had some chances during the rest of the third period, but could not convert, which set the stage for Desmet’s monumental goal.
While Desmet was the offensive star of the night, Talbot was sensational again and won the tourney Most Valuable Player honors.
“I just try to keep the team in the game the whole time,” said Talbot, who downplayed any personal achievement this weekend. “I know these guys are going to come out and support me and block some shots and score some goals. It is my job to keep us in the game until we find a way to do it.”
Like Noonan, Talbot was feeling nerves as the game wound down late in the third period.
“‘Just keep the puck out and give us a chance to win,’” he said. “That’s all I was thinking.”
Brennan Barker gave the Chargers a 1-0 lead at 7:33 of the first period before Chris Moran tied it for the Purple Eagles at one with 3:29 left in the second period.
Niagara, which finished 12-20-4, was denied its fourth CHA title, which would have been the most in league history. They still have three titles, tied with Bemidji State.
“Not the way we wanted to go out with the senior class that did so much for us,.sit here and talk about their goalie, story of the game,” said an emotional Burkholder after the game.