Who knew that Wayne State would prove a greater historical challenge to Niagara than New Hampshire?
The Purple Eagles have yet to travel to one of Wayne State’s myriad home-ice facilities and emerge with a victory, but in two contests against the Wildcats, Niagara is 2-0. The Purple Eagles get another crack at the Warriors on Friday, this time riding the momentum of perhaps the best win in its program’s history, upsetting the number-one team in the nation, 5-2, at the Punch Imlach College Hockey Showcase.
New Hampshire and Niagara had met before, in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, and the Purple Eagles stunned the nation there as well.
“Don’t even ask me about us beating UNH twice, I don’t know,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “This was as good a win as we’ve ever had here at Niagara, maybe our best win ever.”
Leading the charge at the HSBC Center was Niagara junior Barret Ehgoetz, who led the offense with a hat trick, including the game winning goal. Ehgoetz was a particular force on the power play, with two of his goals coming on the man advantage. Often second fiddle to Joe Tallari, Ehgoetz had the Showcase spotlight all to himself on Saturday.
“Ehgoetz did what he does every night, be the hardest working player on the ice,”Burkholder said. “Even in practice he’s our hardest worker and he really was in control on the power play.”
The Purple Eagles did more than light up UNH goaltender Mike Ayers for five goals; they also shut down an electric Wildcat offense led by elite talents like senior Steve Saviano. New Hampshire managed just 21 shots on goal, evidence of a commitment to team defense that Niagara had not shown in years past.
Goaltender Jeff VanNynatten had to be sharp at times, but faced only five shots in the final period, Burkholder rolled his lines and maintained the intensity typical of a veteran team, but not yet on display by Niagara.
“UNH is one of the best teams [in the nation] in transition,” Burkholder said. “It took all 20 guys on our team being on the same page playing with a sense of urgency. Our number-one goal this weekend was to take care of the puck in our own end right to the end of the shift and make sure when moving the puck in the defensive zone.”
Niagara caught a break in the game by facing a team with eight players under suspension for exploits following the Yankees Game 7 victory over the Boston Red Sox. Still, few outside the Niagara locker room expected the victory, especially after a hideous performance the previous night against UMas-Lowell.
Charged up to face former coach Blaise McDonald, the Purple Eagles came out flat as can be and got trounced, 6-1.
“We had a different team, it seemed, Friday night,” Burkholder said. “We had a team meeting Saturday morning and we pulled it together.”
If Niagara can face New Hampshire twice and win both meetings, how come it has never beaten Wayne State on the road? In fact, until last year, Niagara had never beaten WSU at all, going 0-10-1 in its first 11 tries.
“That’s a question I keep getting asked a lot,” Burkholder said. “I really don’t know why we haven’t won. Wayne State’s first fully mature group of seniors was a very special group, and they knew how to play the game well when it counted.”
The Warriors are looking for the delights of a little home cooking themselves. After completing a grueling home-and-home against Findlay this past weekend with a 6-3 loss, WSU can get back on track by allowing history to play its normal course — along with getting strong play from Derek MacKay, a sophomore who has six points in his team’s first four games.
Niagara has to avoid the scourge of big wins, the letdown. The Purple Eagles swear they are focused solely on Wayne State for their first conference game of the year, but surely they must be riding some high from last Saturday.
Even if the team has put UNH behind it, the players must also avoid anticipating the next night’s matchup, a contest against Michigan at Yost Arena. If Niagara captures lightning in a bottle again, it will have repeated the two biggest wins in the program’s history on consecutive weekends. The Purple Eagles upset the Wolverines in 1998.
“Just to be associated with the Michigan program is important for us and for our fans,” Burkholder said. “Yost has one of the best atmospheres in all of college hockey and anytime you play a top-five team it is an important game.”
Entering Conference Play
This weekend marks the start of conference play. Besides Niagara-Wayne State, Air Force will travel to Alabama-Huntsville. The Falcons are abuzz after a highly successful October in which they upset Miami and routed American International with a pair of 5-1 victories. After a rough first game, the Chargers got their skating legs in defeating Connecticut 6-0 on Saturday.
The opening of league games also is a good opportunity to evaluate the status of the league: the facts are simple — the CHA has the third best inter-conference record in college hockey. Beginning with Findlay’s upset of Michigan State opening weekend, the CHA has scored an upset win virtually every week, going 7-8-0 in nonconference games, besting the winning percentage of Atlantic Hockey, the ECAC and the mighty CCHA.
“Players are starting to realize that you have a one-in-six shot of reaching the NCAA tournament each year,” Burkholder said. “The coaches have put their programs in a position where you can begin to make a play for the top recruiting talent. We recruit in Toronto and the some of the top players are deciding to come to the CHA.”
Findlay gets a crack at pushing the league’s nonconference record above .500 by making the road trip to Clarkson and Colgate this weekend
Not really the appropriate forum, but if you haven’t seen Kill Bill yet, do so. Quentin Tarantino does it again.
The invitation is still open to any fan wanting to put their good names on the line and make your predictions known for this week’s games.
Last week, Chris Brown pulled off a winning record, and more impressively called the scores of the Bemidji State-Mankato series. He successfully envisioned a 2-2 tie and a 3-1 win for MSU. Got the dates wrong, but who cares.
So we’ll give Brown another shot this week. Send your predictions to [email protected] if you want to be more than a message board poster.
Alabama-Huntsville 4, Air Force 2
UAH figured things out last Saturday against UConn, and the Chargers will be too much for the cadets on the home slush.
Niagara 3, Wayne State 2
This is a big early-season matchup, but I think Niagara has the edge in talent and experience at this stage.
Clarkson 4, Findlay 2
Findlay has been turning some heads, but won’t get the upset on the road.
Alabama-Huntsville 5, Air Force 1
UAH will be on fire for the sweep on Saturday night.
Michigan 5, Niagara 2
Unless there are a riot and some suspensions in Ann Arbor, Niagara won’t quite have the talent to win this one on the road.
Findlay 2, Colgate 2
Findlay will play hard and manage a tie against this ECAC foe.