Regular season champion Niagara realizes there’s a lot to play for in final weeks

Niagara has been at the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings for virtually the entire season. With few exceptions, the Purple Eagles have been the lone AHA representative in the Division I Men’s Poll, holding down one of the top 20 spots for a school-record 13 weeks in a row.

Coach Dave Burkholder’s team has already clinched the regular season title, holding a nine-point lead over second-place Air Force with four games to play.

Teams can become complacent with a big lead, but Burkholder said that hasn’t been a problem.

“The players have taken a very professional approach to this,” he said. “We’ve been a good practice team all season. That intensity hasn’t changed. I credit our senior captains [Jason Beattie and Dan Weiss] with keeping everyone focused.”

There is still a lot to play for in these last four games. The Purple Eagles are 10th in the PairWise Rankings and need to maintain that position or better it to ensure an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. Only twice before has an AHA team been in line for an at-large berth this late in the season: Air Force in 2009 and Holy Cross in 2006. Both teams won their way into the tournament through the playoff championship.

“It’s a great motivator,” Burkholder said. “You certainly don’t want to go into the playoffs 0-4 and the PairWise makes those games all the more important.”

When asked if he discusses the postseason possibilities with his players, Burkholder said: “I haven’t said too much. They read on the Internet the same things we [coaches] do.”

Niagara got a boost with the return of forward Giancarlo Iuorio, who missed 10 games due to injury. He rejoined the lineup last weekend and posted four goals and three assists in a two-game series with Robert Morris.

Iuorio is averaging 1.35 points a game, which would be good for eighth in the nation if he wasn’t below the minimum number of games to be included (20 played vs. 23 needed).

“He had seven points last weekend,” Burkholder said. “I expected some adjustment period coming back from the injury, but he was right there fighting in front of the net and giving us all he had. It’s a big addition to get him back. He was leading the nation in goals before he got hurt.”

Unlike the other 11 Atlantic Hockey teams, Niagara knows its schedule for the next four weeks: play its final four regular season games, enjoy the bye the Purple Eagles have clinched as one of the top four seeds, and then, as the top seed, face the lowest-seeded surviving team from the first round in a best-of-three series on home ice.

While a few coaches have told me that they would prefer hosting a first-round series than being idle for almost two weeks at that point in the season, Burkholder said he’s not among them.

“It’s a great time to refresh,” he said. “Rest our bodies and rest our minds. It’s what you play all season for.”

Players of the week

From the home office in Haverhill, Mass.:

Atlantic Hockey player of the week:
Giancarlo Iuorio, Niagara

The senior forward celebrated his return from a 10-game hiatus due to injury with four goals and three assists in a split with Robert Morris. In Friday’s 4-3 win, he recorded his second hat trick of the season, including the game-winner with 53 seconds to play. He added a short-handed goal and three assists in a 6-5 overtime loss on Saturday. Despite missing the 10 games, Iuorio leads the No. 16 Purple Eagles with 27 points.

Atlantic Hockey goalie of the week:
Ben Meisner, American International

Meisner wins the award for the second straight week. This time he allowed one goal on 44 shots in an AIC sweep of Sacred Heart. Friday night, Meisner recorded his second shutout of the season and eighth of his career. He’s allowed just five goals in his last six starts.

Atlantic Hockey rookie of the week:
Dan Schuler, Rochester Institute of Technology

The homegrown product had a goal and two assists to help the Tigers to a sweep of Mercyhurst. The freshman has 10 points on the season and leads the team in plus-minus at plus-7.

Avoiding infamy

Sacred Heart defeated Holy Cross 7-3 on Tuesday to avoid a place in infamy. The Pioneers were 0-26-2 going into the game and were trying not to become the fourth team in college hockey history to complete a winless season.

The Pioneers scored the final four goals of the game, including three in the third period. Holy Cross outshot Sacred Heart 36-31 but SHU goalie Andrew Bodnarchuk made 33 saves for the victory.

Back in the hunt

A strong finish can be the cure for an otherwise disappointing season. Rochester Institute of Technology is playing its best hockey of the season with three straight wins, each of the comeback variety, against teams that were ahead of the Tigers in the standings.

As a result, RIT has risen from 10th in the standings to a tie for fourth place, one of a cluster of teams in the middle of the pack. Just four points separate third from ninth place.

Last weekend, RIT swept Mercyhurst in a pair of games that weren’t decided until late in each contest. Sophomore Matt Garbowsky was one of the heroes, assisting on Adam Hartley’s overtime winner on Friday and getting the game winner himself the next night with just 55 seconds to play.

“I think we’ll be a tough opponent in the playoffs,” Tigers coach Wayne Wilson said after Saturday’s win. “I don’t think teams will want to play us based on our track record. And maybe we’ve put some doubt into people, that, ‘Hey, they’re back.'”

The Tigers host Air Force this weekend.

Gensler getting in the groove?

Bentley’s Brett Gensler started off this season the way he ended the previous one: as the league’s top scorer. He had 29 points though his first 17 games, getting held off the score sheet just twice.

But in the following 10 games, the junior forward managed just three points and was held scoreless seven times. Bentley lost five games in a row during that stretch.

Against Army last weekend, Gensler had more points in that two-game series than he had accumulated in those last 10 games, scoring twice and adding a pair of assists to help the Falcons to a win and a tie.

The Falcons are hoping the old Gensler is back as they square off against Sacred Heart this weekend.

Honors for a Crusader

Holy Cross’ Jeffrey Reppucci has made it to the final round of five candidates for the 2013 Hockey Humanitarian Award. The award, presented annually to “college hockey’s finest citizen” is open to men and women from Divisions I, II and III.

Reppucci is the founder of the non-profit organizations Students Helping Children Across Borders, and its domestic arm, Working for Worcester. The charities focus on providing recreational and educational opportunities for underprivileged children.

The junior defenseman, who was named to the AHA all-rookie team in 2011, has missed the entire 2012-13 season due to injury. He is expected to return to action next season.

Into the record book

American International goaltender Meisner is one of the main reasons the Yellow Jackets are sporting the longest unbeaten streak in Division I. AIC and Rensselaer each are without a loss in their last six games.

Meisner set both his school’s and the league’s career saves record earlier this season and is bearing down on college hockey’s record book. With at least seven games left to play in his college career, Meisner is 26th on the all-time NCAA saves list. He has 3,459 to date, well behind the all-time record of 4,434 made by Robbie Moore (Michigan class of 1976) but within striking distance of a top-20 finish. Wisconsin’s Kirk Daubenspeck (1997) is in the 20th spot at 3,517, just 58 saves away.

That should be child’s play for Meisner, who is averaging 35.4 saves a game this season. He’s on a pace to make 3,707 stops, which would rank him 11th all-time, with additional games possible based on how the Yellow Jackets fare in the postseason.