Big things expected again from Niagara, but departures leave holes

Ryan Murphy is Niagara’s top returning scorer (photo: Melissa Wade).

Every team goes through a few rough patches during a season. For Niagara, those times happened at the beginning and the end of the 2012-13 campaign.

The Purple Eagles opened with one win in their first five games, but lost just four more times until the last weekend of the regular season, going 20-4-2 from November through February.

That was more than enough to allow Niagara to run away with the Atlantic Hockey regular season title. But Dave Burkholder’s squad got swept at Air Force on the final weekend of league play, and after rebounding by winning a pair of spirited games against Rochester Institute of Technology in the semifinals, Niagara was ousted 5-3 in the semifinals by archrival Canisius.

Despite the loss of Hobey Baker Award finalist Carsen Chubak in net, two of its top three leading scorers and three defensemen with a combined 370 games played, the league’s coaches picked Niagara to repeat as regular season champions.

“We’re certainly not ordering and plaques or trophies, but the AHA is a great league and to be picked is a great honor for our guys and we’ve got something to live up to,” Burkholder said. “The guys that we lost are huge and you just don’t know. Three senior defensemen in [Jason] Beattie, [Dan] Weiss and [C.J.] Chartrain. We also lost three seniors up front. You can’t put a price tag on senior leadership.”

For leadership this season, three Ryans will assume big roles. Ryan Murphy is the Purple Eagles’ top returning scorer, racking up 64 career points so far, including 36 last season. Classmate Ryan Rashid was fourth on the team with nine goals last year, and defenseman Kevin Ryan led Niagara with 23 assists in 2012-13.

“[Ryan Murphy’s] our leading scorer, the guy we’re going to lean on to lead this team offensively,” Burkholder said. “He’s a big, strong kid, power forward, he led us with 36 points. The team will go the way Ryan goes. We will start three senior forwards [Murphy, Rashid and Patrick Divjak] as our top line and hopefully again Ryan Murphy will be the guy to get our offense going.”

Niagara’s three goalies have a combined zero minutes of collegiate experience, but a pair of highly touted rookies will compete for time in net, as will a returning sophomore.

“Carsen Chubak was a Hobey Baker finalist, and he decided to take a pro contract,” Burkholder said. “We’ve filled that space with two freshman goalies. Adrian Ignagni is from St. Mike’s in Toronto. I expect his transition to D-I will be seamless. Jackson Teichroeb is a USHL goaltender, the best league in North America, and he had over 50 career wins there. [Sophomore] Chris Paulin is a hardworking kid who will be in the mix for playing time as well.”

Niagara is the first Atlantic Hockey team to see regular season action, opening Saturday with a 2-1 home loss to Clarkson to end a 22-game unbeaten streak at Dwyer Arena.

The rematch with Canisius comes a week later.

“They’ve ended our season twice,” Burkholder said. “Last year was devastating. I remember loading the bus at Blue Cross Arena and I thought we had lost our chance for an [NCAA] at-large bid. That certainly added to our side of the rivalry. We’re going to play the second week of the schedule. That should get a lot of interest and really stir the pot locally.”

Niagara is going to need to rely on freshman to extend that home unbeaten streak and again contend for a title.

“Expectations are huge around here,” Burkholder said. “If we don’t make the NCAA tournament it’s a huge disappointment. We have 10 freshmen and they’re all expected to contribute. It’s like putting a puzzle together. All 10 of these will come in and help keep us at the top of the league.”

About the Purple Eagles

2012-13 overall record: 23-10-5

2012-13 AHA record: 20-5-2 (First)

2013-14 projected finish (coaches poll): First

Key losses: G Carsen Chubak, F Giancarlo Iuorio, F Marc Zanette

Players to watch: F Ryan Murphy, D Kevin Ryan, F Ryan Rashid

Impact rookie: A pair of well-regarded freshmen goalies will look to lead the way: Adrian Ignagni led St. Michael’s to the OJHL championship last season, posting a .938 save percentage. Jackson Teichroeb had 47 wins over seasons with Lincoln and Dubuque in the USHL.

Why the Purple Eagles will match the prediction from the coaches poll: Niagara lost a lot to graduation but depth has been a clear strength for the Purple Eagles since joining the league. If the rookie goalies play well and former role players can assume key roles, Niagara can repeat as regular season champions.

Why the Purple Eagles will finish lower than the coaches poll: There’s nowhere to go but down after last season’s first-place finish. The loss of Chubak in net and a third of the Niagara offense could spell trouble.