Expectations were high at Niagara as the 2004-05 season began — and rightfully so. After all, the Purple Eagles finished the previous campaign with 21 victories, a CHA tournament trophy and a trip to the NCAA playoffs. Figure in the return of the fifth-leading scorer in all of Division I and an all-conference goalkeeper, and Niagara’s prospects appeared favorable.
Then the puck dropped. Niagara got off to a 5-9-0 start — including 0-3-0 conference play — which put the team in a hole right off the bat. Add into the mix an injury to netminder Jeff Van Nynatten, and the Eagles’ outlook went from bad to worse.
However, the return of Van Nynatten and the team’s first sweep of a CHA series this season seems to have buoyed Niagara’s spirits considerably, according to head coach Dave Burkholder.
“It was a big weekend — especially when you sweep — for a team that’s been working pretty hard for the most part and not getting the results it deserves,” said Burkholder, whose squad posted back-to-back wins at home against Air Force last weekend. “We really have been stressing our systems and details. And finally, to get some results is just going to boost everyone’s confidence and get them even more committed to what we’re trying to accomplish.”
What the Purple Eagles are trying to accomplish is earning a return trip to the NCAA tournament, and the easiest path to that destination is winning the CHA postseason competition. Niagara was picked to finish second in the conference during the preseason, a spot which would reward the team with a first-round bye in the tourney.
The road became a little rougher after posting a 2-4-0 mark during the first three weeks of conference competition. Entering last weekend’s series against Air Force, Niagara held down the fifth spot in the CHA with a 3-5-0 mark for six points. But the sweep of the Falcons allowed Burkholder’s team to fly over the cadets and into the fourth position.
That performance, coupled with Wayne State’s split of a two-game set against Robert Morris, moved Niagara within striking distance of the Warriors. Wayne State has 12 points to Niagara’s 10, but has also played two more games than the Eagles. And with WSU taking on non-conference Nebraska-Omaha this weekend, the standings shakeup could continue.
Not that Burkholder is paying much attention to the standings at this point.
“We really haven’t got to the point where we’ve done any math or even followed out of town scores,” he said. “When you start the way we started … being swept at home by Bemidji is really our only bad weekend. You’d have to think, as a team, we could overcome one bad weekend. We have to make up for one bad weekend somewhere number-wise.
“We’re not concerned. I mean, can we play better? Yes. Can we win the CHA the way we’re playing? Maybe. But I think we need to get better in some areas.”
One area the Eagles saw an improvement in last weekend was between the pipes, as Van Nynatten returned to game action following a seven-week layoff due to a broken finger. But his presence was felt several days before the Falcons landed in town.
“When he was cleared medically last Monday, it was quite evident that the energy in practice was at a high that I haven’t seen in a long time,” Burkholder said. “Jeff wanted to be cleared two weeks prior, and the doctor wouldn’t do it because of the healing process of the bone.”
Van Nynatten showed no ill effects from the broken digit, which was suffered during practice on Nov. 29. The junior stopped 16 shots — including all nine he faced in the third period — to help Niagara to a 3-2 win on Friday night. He posted his first shutout of the season the following evening by turning aside 15 pucks in a 3-0 win.
“When the doctor and then [trainer Naoto Goto] signed off on it, I knew he was in good hands and ready to go,” stated Burkholder. “The kid was just full of energy, and he’s pain-free. We asked him how it felt every day, and he said he’s fine. He’s like, ‘Stop asking me, Coach, I’m good to go.’ So he’s quite a competitor.”
Burkholder said that, while stopping just 31 shots total during a weekend isn’t exactly an earth-shattering number, Van Nynatten’s performance in other areas was impressive.
“His number-one attribute was handling the puck for us,” the coach stated. “Stopping it, setting it up, icing it when it needed to be iced, out of our zone when it needed to be sent out of our zone. He helps our D, and I think our team is just very, very confident when he was back in the crease.”
Robert Morris Shakes OT Monkey
Until last weekend, neither overtime nor CHA play had been kind to the Robert Morris Colonials. Five times the Colonials had gone to an extra frame before traveling to Wayne State, and twice they had come away losers — the other three settling for ties.
The Colonials also entered the second game of the series winless in the conference, posting a 0-8-1 mark in the club’s first nine outings.
But RMU put a stop to both futility streaks on Sunday, beating the Warriors, 4-3, in the extra frame and lifting a little frustration from the team at the same time.
“We’ve played extremely hard and had some close calls, and our guys had been getting frustrated,” head coach Derek Schooley said. “It was very good for our program and for our guys to be able to experience a CHA win. We had been there with some overtime losses and a tie, but hadn’t experienced a league win. Our guys are extremely excited about it.”
It wasn’t easy, though. Three times the Colonials took the lead, and three times they saw Wayne State come back to even the score, the final equalizer coming off Dan Iliakis’ stick with just 2:59 left in regulation.
“We could have easily went south that game, but we didn’t,” Schooley said. “We could have easily lost focused or been dejected, but we stayed on course.”
The winning play came early in the extra frame, as Nick Pernula pushed the puck up ice to Brett Hopfe, who beat Will Hooper for the winner at 0:38.
Hopfe started the season strong, netting a hat trick in his second game of the year against Canisius. But he fell on hard times for much of the first half, picking up just three points (1-2) during the next 17 games. He’s been much better of late, though, and carries a three-game goal-scoring streak into this weekend’s action against Niagara.
“Brett has had his ups and downs. He had the big first weekend then had a big dry spell. But I think, as with a lot of our guys, he’s finally beginning to figure out how to play Division I hockey,” Schooley said. “I’ve been very happy with the success he’s had with the second half. I know he was disappointed with the first half, so he’s got to be extremely excited about how he’s started off the second half.”
Get Out The Vote
CHA fans are letting their voices be heard loud and clear, as three of the conference’s top players are among the leaders in preliminary Hobey Baker voting.
As of Jan. 27, Niagara’s Barret Ehgoetz (1,159 votes — ninth place) and Ryan Gale (770 votes — 19th place), as well as Alabama-Huntsville’s Jared Ross (892 votes — 15th place) were among the top 20 vote getters at www.hobeybaker.com. Fans can log on and vote once every day for their top three candidates. Final results of the fan balloting, which runs through March 6, will be combined with votes from the 58 Division I head coaches to pick the 10 finalists for the award this season.
“I think it’s good for both kids,” Burkholder said of his dynamic duo of Ehgoetz and Gale. “The thing I’m proud of is their numbers stand up nationally. We’ll see when the hockey people get involved who ends up on the final list.”
Burkholder is happy to have the fans involved with the process as well.
“The fans are everything to us,” he said. “If we can make some fun for the fans, I don’t see a problem with this whole process. People go online every day to vote and see where their favorite player is. I think it’s good.”
Additional CHA players among the 142 currently on the ballot include UAH’s Bruce Mulherin (36th) and Craig Bushey (43rd) and Bemidji State’s Andrew Murray (70th) and Brendan Cook (85th).
• Bemidji State sophomore Luke Erickson, who missed last weekend’s series against Alabama-Huntsville, is expected to miss four weeks due to stress fractures. He is tied for second on the team with 28 points (8-20) while appearing in 20 games.
• Bemidji’s Andrew Murray had his 12-game scoring streak snapped in last Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Chargers. The BSU junior had 26 points (10-16) during the streak, the longest in the team’s Division I history.
• Alabama-Huntsville’s Bruce Mulherin became the first player to net three power-play goals in a single game during Saturday’s win against Bemidji State. Strangely enough, he also leads the nation with four shorthanded goals on the year.
• Niagara’s Ryan Gale carries an eight-game scoring streak (8-6=14) into this weekend’s series against Robert Morris.
• Wayne State’s OT loss to the Colonials last Sunday snapped a nine-game (4-0-5) unbeaten streak in the extra frame. The Warriors’ last overtime loss prior to that game came on Feb. 21, 2003, against Niagara, 3-2.
• Air Force senior defenseman Josh Priewe suffered a fractured rib two weeks ago against Army, and is expected to be out of the lineup for four to six weeks.