LEWISTON, N.Y. — Late Saturday evening, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was enjoying the jocularity of his team’s victory in his office on a dark, tumultuous evening on the Niagara Peninsula.
At that same exact moment, Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley was on a bus filled with dejected players on a terribly long and dark ride home on New York and Pennsylvania thruways to the suburbs of Pittsburgh.
A perfect scenario for thinking.
For RMU, a season over. Something that started way back in September, technically.
One coach celebrates, while the other thinks of what could have been and is sad, not just for himself, but for his players. The nature of collegiate sports. Especially in March, when many seasons and dreams end.
Certainly not life or death, but the stark contrast of emotions has to hit somewhat with people.
And this was such an occasion.
Niagara freshman Chris Lochner scored the winning goal with just 15.2 seconds left in the game to propel the Purple Eagles to a dramatic 2-1 victory over Robert Morris on Saturday night at Dwyer Arena.
Bottom line: the Purple Eagles celebrated redemption from last season’s lost fiasco while the Colonials’ 10 seniors have played their last collegiate game.
The win gave the Purple Eagles, now 17-10-9 overall, a two-game sweep in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series. Niagara, now 12-2-2 in its last 16 games, advanced to the AHA semifinals at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena starting next Friday.
NU’s opponent was determined by either late games on Saturday or possibly Sunday, if third and deciding games are needed.
The first of the two semifinal games starts at 4:05 p.m. on Friday. The second game is scheduled to start an hour after the completion of the first game.
“That was a playoff hockey game from start to finish, against a very good Robert Morris team,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, whose club needs to win two more Atlantic conference games to qualify for the NCAA tournament. “They are a great defensive team with a great goalie. Our motto was to be patient, and sure enough at the end, we find one that slips through.
The series-winning goal came on a play which seemed innocent and routine while it transpired.
RMU goaltender Brooks Ostergard tried to clear the puck off of the glass in the corner of the rink, but Lochner knocked it down and immediately shot the puck on the net from the edge of the faceoff circle. Ostergard appeared to be discombobulated and the puck slipped between his blocker and the post.
“The puck came off of the boards and to be honest, I was trying to put the puck on the net,” Lochner said. “I happened to put a pretty decent shot on the net and when I looked up, people were celebrating and it was in the back of the net. I don’t think he was ready for it or I think he would have stopped it.”
The Colonials took a 1-0 lead on Tyler Hinds’ goal at 16:26 of the first period, but as they often do, the Purple Eagles responded in succinct fashion. Isaac Kohls tipped Giancarlo Iuorio’s shot from the point past Ostergard to tie the game at one just 1:15 later.
The third period was a tension-filled affair with Ostergard and Niagara’s Chris Noonan both making important saves before Lochner became the latest in a series of heroes for Niagara.
Niagara outshot the Colonials 44-27. Both teams were 0-for-3 on the power play.
Ostergard made 42 saves, while Noonan recorded 26.
So now, a calendar year after the Purple Eagles’ season ended horribly with a loss to hated rival Canisius, they are ready to move on, and are glad to put last season’s nightmarish finish behind them.
“This is just awesome,” said Niagara sophomore defenseman Kevin Ryan. “This is what we expected to happen last year. We had a great team last year, but this year we are just working that much harder.”
Schooley, whose club showed industrious fortitude this weekend in abundance, had nothing to show for it except a long and painful bus ride home, to think what might have been.
“We played hard and competed and we did everything we needed to do and be successful and to give ourselves an opportunity,” said Schooley. “You can’t be disappointed when you play hard and give yourself an opportunity.”