All season, the Niagara Purple Eagles have looked for players to step up in big games.
Judging by their unimpressive record, it did not happen too often.
However, in their biggest game of the season, the Purple Eagles did have someone play a paramount role, and it prolonged their season while bringing their NCAA tournament dream one mountainous step closer.
The player was senior defensemen Tyler Gotto, who scored twice in Niagara’s surprising 5-4 triumph over No. 8 Bemidji State on Friday.
“It feels amazing to help out this team,” said Gotto, who now has 11 goals this season. “I have been here for four years, and it has been a big part of my life. I would do anything for this program that has done everything for me.”
The Calgary native now has 80 career points, which is second on the all-time Niagara defenseman scoring list.
He gave the Purple Eagles what they wanted and desperately needed — an early goal against a nationally-ranked club which dominated the league all season.
Gotto gave Niagara a 1-0 advantage just 4:29 into the game when his shot from the point beat Bemidji State goaltender Dan Bakala. The goal seemed to catapult the Purple Eagles — who sometimes were more fragile than a leaf in the wind this season — into a situation where they thought they could win the game.
“I saw the corner of the net and knew if I shot it anything could happen,” he said. “I kept it on the ice because he [Bakala] was crouched down a little bit. Luckily he didn’t see it and it found the back of the net.”
His second goal was important as well, giving the Purple Eagles a 3-2 lead at 15:46 of the second period in a game where momentum was taking quick and tumultuous swings. It was far from a pretty goal — a shot from the point on the power play that sailed through a maze of players past a screened Bakala.
“I was thinking of whether to pass or get a shot on net,” he said. “Mark Zanette actually yelled at me to shoot it, and that took away the option of passing right there. I luckily made a little move to get myself some space, and it [the shot] went off one of their ‘D.’
“Like we were saying, any shot is a good shot.”
With a tremendous victory now behind them, Gotto and the fourth-seeded Purple Eagles face No. 3 Alabama-Huntsville in Saturday’s CHA championship game. The winner not only wins the league title but gets an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
“We have one more game to go,” he said. “It was definitely a big win for us. Hopefully we will build some momentum going into tomorrow night. As coach [Dave Burkholder] said, this is what we have been playing for all year.”