Game of the Week: UAH at Niagara

One team is a perennial Division II power finding its way in D-I. The other was an NCAA qualifier, and perhaps the feel-good story of the year, in 1999-2000.

One was the College Hockey America tournament runner-up. The other was its champion, thanks to a third-period rally that neither team has forgotten.

One returns four of its top five scorers from last season. The other graduated its first-ever senior class, 15 of ’em.

One began the 2000-01 campaign with eight victories in nine games. The other earned a single victory in its first 11 contests.

All of this — and none of it — matters this Friday and Saturday, when Alabama-Huntsville visits Dwyer Arena to take on Niagara in the schools’ second series in three weeks.

Two weeks ago, Niagara visited the Hockey Capital of the South for a pair, and after dropping the first game the Purple Eagles rallied to defeat the host Chargers 3-0 on Saturday, handing UAH its first loss since a 4-3 decision against now-No. 6 Western Michigan back on Oct. 21.

That win may have been the springboard Niagara head coach Blaise MacDonald has been looking for. Armed, perhaps, with new confidence, MacDonald’s young Purps went out and beat Colgate and Cornell at the Syracuse Invitational last weekend, claiming their second SIT title in three years. This from a team which lost its top six scorers, plus ironman goaltender Greg Gardner, to graduation after last season’s magical run to the NCAA quarterfinals.

Replacing that group is a huge rookie crop getting its training on the job, or its baptism by fire, depending on your rhetorical slant. Netminder Rob Bonk has put up Gardner-like numbers, posting a 2.28 goals against average and a .919 save percentage to go with a respectable 4-4-2 record. Meanwhile, freshman forwards Hannu Kurru and Bernie Sigrist lead Niagara in scoring, at 7-6–13 and 3-8–11 respectively. Obviously, then, the newcomers are holding their own in the nets and up front.

The defense, though, is still the purview of the veterans at Niagara. It’s no coincidence that the Purple Eagles’ co-captains are a pair of blueliners in senior Timo Makela and Michigan transfer Scott Crawford; those two, along with sophomore Chris Sebastian, hold down the key defensive positions. It should also come as no surprise, then, that the Purple Eagle defense is giving up just 2.4 goals per game, belying the team’s 4-7-3 overall record.

Alabama-Huntsville, meanwhile, looks as if it’s bidding to be this season’s Niagara. The Chargers’ 8-2-0 mark in 2000-01, including their road split with the aforementioned Broncos, has had UAH on the fringes of the poll much of the young season.

The Chargers’ 5-3 Friday-night win against Niagara two weeks ago was head coach Doug Ross’ 400th, not to mention Huntsville’s first in nine matchups with the Purple Eagles, and marked the high point of the season for the maturing hosts. That made Saturday’s reversal all the more disappointing for a team which expected to have turned a corner the night before.

All is hardly lost, of course. As mentioned above, the Chargers return most of their scoring punch, including center Dwayne Blais (3-5–8), the preseason pick for CHA Player of the Year, and wingers Ryan McCormick (4-6–10) and Jessi Otis (4-6–10). Sophomore Karlas Zirnis (7-5–12) leads the team in goals, but perhaps the biggest offensive sparkplug has been senior defenseman Darren Curry (4-8–12), who scored 23 points last year and is well on his way to eclipsing that mark this time around. That group forms the core of the CHA’s second-best scoring offense (3.6 goals per game in overall play).

Back in nets, UAH has sophomore Mark Byrne, who saw considerable action last season as the Chargers’ number-two netminder. Byrne has compiled a 7-2-0 record with a 2.33 GAA and .918 SV% while appearing in every Huntsville contest but one.

So what’s the key to this series? Hackneyed as it sounds, it should be emotion. These teams have already played twice this season, so it’s not like they’re not familiar with each other; and both have well-respected coaches who bring their squads to play. UAH may have started faster than Niagara — okay, a lot faster — and certainly has the edge in experience, but the Purple Eagles look like they’re coming around quickly. And Niagara, of course, has home ice this time around.

Still, two weeks ago both teams went home with a win. To expect anything else this time might be asking too little of a short, but already interesting, rivalry.