LEWISTON, N.Y. — This series was as close as advertised.
Sure, it will go into the record books as a two-game sweep for Niagara, which took another giant step towards its first NCAA tournament berth in five years.
The Purple Eagles took that next step in heart-stopping and dramatic fashion in the 2-1 overtime victory over the Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday night in an inflamed and noisy Dwyer Arena. They will play an as of yet undetermined opponent next Friday night in an Atlantic Hockey semifinal game at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
All season long, the Purple Eagles – now 23-8-5 and ranked 15th in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll – got important goals at critical junctures.
This time, Marc Zanette scored the winner to send Niagara onward.
The victory could not have been sweeter for the Purple Eagles, who extended their home unbeaten streak to 22 games, tying the school record. It is now tied for the fifth-longest streak in college hockey history. Beating the Tigers was also monumental revenge for Niagara, which was eliminated in the AHA semifinals last season in terrible fashion.
“Just another night at the office,” said a drained-looking Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “I think everyone involved in our program deserves tomorrow off. You saw how good they were. They had us on our heels for half of the weekend. It was a flip of the coin, or we would be here tomorrow night.”
The Tigers, who finished 15-18-5, now face summer after scaring the living stars out of Niagara this weekend.
“I couldn’t be much prouder of the way our guys played in these two games,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “I thought we played very hard, but when you draw the No. 1 seed in their home rink, maybe that was the difference, I don’t know. It was tough.
“I wish we could have delayed Niagara in a single elimination at Blue Cross [Arena] rather than drawing them in a best-of-three at home.”
After 60 minutes failed to decide the issue, RIT opened the overtime with a minute power-play advantage and later, a two full minutes, but could not score despite some quality chances. Niagara helped goaltender Carsen Chubak by blocking several shots.
“Guys take a lot of pride in that,” Burkholder said of his club’s OT penalty killing prowess. “Getting in shooting lanes. Guys laying out, blocking shots to win a championship and obviously, Chubak is our best penalty killer.”
Then, Zanette ascended to prime-time status for the winner.
Niagara’s Ryan Murphy picked up a loose puck in the RIT end during a wild scramble, took it and circled around the net before hitting Zanette with a pass in the right faceoff circle. Zanette immediately blasted a velocity-laden shot past Tigers’ goaltender Jordan Ruby to send Niagara fans home ecstatic and RIT fans home very glum.
“There was a bouncing puck in the slot and Murphy got it and pulled it wide and pulled a couple of their guys,” Zanette said. “He fed, I don’t even know how the puck got through, right on their guy’s stick, and it just found my stick. I shot as hard as I could.”
In reality, the game should have never gotten to that point.
The desperate Tigers showed that very trait in the first period when they stormed Niagara in dominating fashion. But the bottom line, they only scored one goal when Josh Mitchell took Ben Lynch’s pass in the slot from directly behind the net and blasted the puck over Chubak’s glove.
RIT outshot Niagara 15-6 and maybe could have led by two or three, but they didn’t and that would come back to haunt them later.
:They were all over us because of their team speed and we spent the time in the penalty box,” Burkholder said. “But you know what? They didn’t put us away. We got in the room and it was like, ‘Okay guys, take a deep breath, it is 1-0.’ We got through it. But the shots will say we were the better team for the last 30 minutes anyway and in the overtime.”
Niagara evened it 1-1 in the second period when Patrick Divjak’s shot from an extremely sharp angle squeezed by Ruby’s pad and the post to tie the game 1-1 at 14:17.
The overtime was a typical do-or-die period, but Niagara carried the play in outshooting the Tigers 13-6.
The Purple Eagles collectively feel they have some unfinished business in Rochester. Last year’s loss hit Zanette especially hard.
“Last year when that [OT] goal went in, I was lying on the medical table and I heard a roar and I knew it wasn’t our fans,” Zanette said. “That feeling of lying there last year and helpless kind of pushed me tonight. I did not want them to end our season again.”