LEWISTON, N.Y. — Sometimes in athletics, just a few moments can ruin an entire night’s work.
A young Niagara University club learned that lesson in painful fashion on Saturday night, as the Purple Eagles allowed three goals in a short span late in the second period and then had to stage a gutsy comeback to earn a 4-4 tie with Merrimack before 1,355 patrons in Dwyer Arena.
The Purple Eagles, who are beginning their first year in Atlantic Hockey, are 0-0-1 while the Hockey East Warriors have the same record.
“I really liked our game, other than that four-minute span in the second period where maybe one lucky bounce cost us,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “Other than that three-minute span, from start to finish I thought we did our gameplan. We wanted to win the dump game and forecheck their “D” and I thought we did a great job on that.”
The paramount juncture of game transpired late in the second period after Niagara’s David Ross and Paul Zanette had scored goals just over five minutes apart early in the period for a 3-1 advantage.
The scenario twisted quickly and dramatically when the Warriors scored three times in a span of only 2:48 to turn a 2-goal deficit into a lead.
First, Jeff Velleca stood at the corner of the crease and banged a rebound past Niagara goaltender Chris Noonan to cut Merrimack’s deficit to 3-2 with 5:49 left in the period.
Just 1:44 later, Jeff Heffernan poked in a rebound from just outside the crease the tie the game 3-3. Then, Brandon Brodhag banged in a loose puck just 1:04 later to complete the blitzkrieg and give the Warriors a 4-3 lead as an ominous hush befell the once-boisterous Niagara crowd.
“For a young team, obviously blowing a 3-1 lead at home is not what you expect or want to go through,” Burkholder said of his team, which suited up only four seniors for the game. “I didn’t think about a timeout (during the span). It was one or two quick breakdowns and they were opportunistic.”
The Purple Eagles could have folded up, but instead found some intestinal fortitude and outshot the Warriors 13-9 in the third period. They were rewarded for their efforts when Ryan Rashid picked up a loose puck, swooped in on Merrimack goaltender Joe Cannata and slid the puck between his legs to tie the game at four 1:04 into the third period.
Niagara’s Ryan Annesley, who had a goal and an assist, was glad the Purple Eagles responded the way they did after confronting some very serious adversity.
“Being down one in the third, obviously 20 minutes is a long time,” said the senior defenseman. “It was gut check time for us, so we were happy to do that. Obviously we don’t want to blow any 3-1 leads at home again, but I thought other than the lapse of those four shifts in a row, we played pretty well.”
When it was all said and done, Burkholder was pleased with his club — for the most part. So was Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy.
“I did like our resiliency,” he said. “Listen, when you play a Dave Burkholder-coached team, you know you are going to get really physical, old fashioned type hockey, which is great because that is how we like to play as well. We looked like we were skating uphill early and looked a little unsure of ourselves. But we righted the ship at times, and it was a good game.”