As each shift went by last Sunday, the question grew more prescient — could Niagara upset Bemidji State in the CHA championship without a single point from Barret Ehgoetz or Joe Tallari?
With the final heading into overtime, Ehgoetz — third overall in the nation with 53 points — and Tallari, who has amassed 123 points in his four years as a Purple Eagle, were conspicuously absent from the scoresheet. Amazingly, Niagara had still been two minutes away from the Bruce McLeod Trophy without a contribution from its big stars before the Beavers scored a dramatic game-tying goal to send the championship into sudden death.
While Niagara fans may have grown fearful about their title prospects, coach Dave Burkholder was much more sanguine from behind the bench.
“Giving up the lead in the third period twice was tough,” Burkholder said. “We regrouped after regulation….Every time we put the [Ehgoetz] line on the ice in overtime, I kept thinking that this has gotta be the shift.”
And at 13:27 of the overtime, the shift finally came. Tallari from Ehgoetz. Textbook.
“This was probably the biggest goal in our program’s history,” Burkholder said. “For Joe to get it from Barret, it certainly adds to the NCAA tournament bid.”
Regardless of how Niagara does in the dance, Tallari has written a fitting chapter for a magnificent career. For most of the year, he seemed destined to have an all-time senior letdown. After notching 56 points as a junior, Tallari struggled mightily to find his scorer’s touch. Before New Year’s Day, he had managed just three goals and eight assists.
Niagara challenged for first place on the strength of Ehgoetz’s play, and the team waited for Tallari to come along. He found it in January with a four-point weekend against Bemidji and then posted consecutive four-point games against Findlay and Canisius, as part of a 13-game scoring streak.
Just as he and his team seemed to be peaking, Tallari went cold again and didn’t have a point for five straight games entering the championship. In fact, against Wayne State in the CHA semifinals, the Purple Eagles relied upon two goals from the fourth line to win 2-1 and to prevent a bracket-busting loss to the Warriors.
“The win was a complete effort,” Burkholder said. “We don’t play another day if our senior line with Nick Kormanyos, really our fourth line, doesn’t score both goals against Wayne State. Our second line was solid both nights. We’re a pretty tough team to beat when we have that effort.”
But while it may be hard to beat a team when its depth excels, it is also very hard to win a championship if that team’s stars fail to shine.
Tallari got the job done.
“He’s certainly etched his name in Niagara hockey history forever,” Burkholder said. “He’s had such a great career.”
The Purple Eagles now get to extend their season by at least another week. Since the CHA finishes its tournament a week before the rest of Division I, the players can crash on each other’s dorm room futons, crack open a soda and watch their potential opponents duke it out.
“I hope the kids are as high as I am after this win,” Burkholder said. “We need the week off; people have no idea how hard it is to win come playoff time. The other conferences will find out this weekend.”
“We’ve only been a Division I program for six years, and this is our second trip to the tournament,” he added. “I don’t know who we are going to play and where, but we are going to be a tough out. We beat New Hampshire when they were the number-one team in the nation. We played 16 nonconference games and got points in half of them. The tough schedule prepared us.”
Tallari had been preparing his whole career to deliver in a moment like this. Turns out that Niagara couldn’t win without a point from its stars.
Bemidji Holds Heads High
Just two weeks ago, it was Bemidji State riding the emotional high. After Niagara faltered down the stretch, the Beavers were celebrating a remarkable senior class whose first year in the program captured four wins only to quintuple that total in this, their final season.
First place during the regular season seemed a harbinger for things to come, but it was not meant to be. A program that set as a preseason goal to reach 20 wins wound up needing 21.
“Any time you tie up the game with two minutes left in the regulation, it gets you excited,” said coach Tom Serratore. “During the first ten minutes of overtime, I thought we were carrying the play, but Niagara got the one bounce they needed.”
After a suitable mourning period elapses, the program will grasp its myriad accomplishments in winning its first championship of any kind since joining Division I. Still, for the time being, that regular-season victory must feel Pyrrhic.
“In a one-game elimination playoff anything can happen,” Serratore said. “You always want to win in the postseason and we obviously wanted to be that team with the automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.”
Bemidji, moreover, will probably enter next year as it did this year, the favorite to win the CHA. It will return all of its top scorers, including the remarkable junior tandem of Brendan Cook and Riley Riddell, who combined for 73 points as well as Rookie of the Year Luke Erickson. While this loss marks an end to the careers of players like captain and First-Team All-CHA Defenseman Bryce Methven, the future is bright.
Alabama-Huntsville Crumbles and Tumbles
Alabama-Huntsville coach Doug Ross did not mince words when evaluating his squad’s 5-3 upset loss to Wayne State.
“You have to get better goaltending to win in the postseason,” he said. “We let in some soft goals and it hurt us. We didn’t get the goaltending down the stretch that we had earlier in the season.”
The numbers don’t lie. Adam MacLean and Scott Munroe combined to yield four goals on 20 shots. Meanwhile, Matt Kelly picked up right where he left off the previous time the Warriors played UAH — spectacularly. The sophomore goalie made 40 saves to make it three straight over the Chargers.
“We had a young team this year,” Ross added. “Next year we will have better goaltending, better defense, and more scoring. We need to add depth. We only really got goals from Jared Ross’s line. That will change as we mature.”
Ross also had some blunt words for the Hobey Baker selection committee, wondering how his star (and son) Jared Ross was not named a finalist for the award, after netting 50 points and leading the nation in points per game. Or at the very least, Ehgoetz.
“Tell me, what is the selection process like for this award? What [are] the selection criteria? We’ve got guys who are leading the country in offensive categories and we can’t be named one of the top 10 guys? Are we a Division III or ACHA conference? what’s the award for?
“To me it shows a total lack of respect for the CHA.”
CHA commissioner Bob Peters, though upset, was more circumspect:
“It is disconcerting because there are two very fine athletes and they lead the nation in various categories, they were our co-Players of the Year. My personal opinion is these are exciting players to watch and they deserve the accolades as players of the year. I can easily see why people should be voting for them. I can also see why the decision is tough, but I probably would feel more comfortable had we received at least one finalist.”
Congratulations are also in order for the fine way that Wayne State turned around a moribund season with a dynamic last couple of weeks, including a playoff win and near-upset of Niagara in the semifinals.
The final chapter was written in Findlay varsity hockey history with its 6-2 loss to Bemidji on Saturday. The Oilers gamely competed at Kearney and did themselves proud with their final performances. Success to wherever that program’s players land.