Since the first week of the season, Niagara has continued to be one of the biggest surprises in college hockey. After being picked to finish last by coaches and media after winning just five games last season (and six the season before last), Niagara has consistently exceeded expectations.
After a weekend sweep of defending Atlantic Hockey champions Air Force in Colorado Springs, the Purple Eagles improved to 8-2-1 in league play and 9-5-1 overall.
That’s good for first place in the conference with games in hand on most of the teams trailing them.
It’s time to stop being surprised and time to acknowledge that this team is for real.
Winning at Air Force is always tough, and Niagara hadn’t swept a series there since 2005 when both teams were members of College Hockey America. But a pair of convincing victories, 6-3 on Friday and 5-2 on Saturday, changed all that.
“I think it’s real important that the guys continue to believe in themselves and they did a great job of that,” said Niagara first-year coach Jason Lammers on Saturday. “Tonight it was a great road win, just the way we played the game, every play mattered, getting pucks in and out, every pass was important, and I was real impressed with the way they responded and the effort. I thought we were real hard to play against tonight, which was cool to see.”
On Friday, Derian Plouffe had a pair of goals, including a shorthanded tally that effectively put the game away midway through the second period.
The next night, Niagara got another shorthanded goal, the team’s NCAA-leading fifth so far, from Nick Farmer midway through the second period to stake the Purple Eagles to a lead they would not relinquish. Farmer scored again late in the third.
Niagara killed all nine Air Force power play attempts to extend its streak to 17 consecutive successful PKs. Niagara’s success rate improved to 88.4 percent, sixth best in Division I.
Freshman Brian Wilson picked up both victories in net, stopping 40 shots on Friday and 23 on Saturday.
The stakes get even higher for Niagara when it squares off against arch rival Canisius in a home-and-home series this weekend to close out the first semester. It will be a battle for first place with the Golden Griffins currently holding down second place in the conference.
Win some, lose some
Tate Rink on the campus of West Point had a yuletide glow with the No. 17 Colgate (red) Raiders paying a visit to the (gold and) Black Knights on Saturday.
Atlantic Hockey teams have been struggling recently in non-conference play, winning just two of ten intra-conference games going back to early November.
Army West Point has also struggled at home so far this season, posting a 0-4-2 record.
All that changed in a hurry.
The Black Knights got a goal from Brendan McGuire near the end of the first period, tacked on two more in the second, including Mason Kreuger’s first of his collegiate career, and then held on for a 3-1 win over the Raiders.
Rookie goaltender Jared Dempsey, making his first collegiate start, stopped 24 of 25 shots for his first victory.
It was the fourth consecutive time Army West point has defeated Colgate. The Black Knights will continue their non-conference stretch, hosting Merrimack this Friday before traveling to New Hampshire the following day. They’ll close out 2017 with a series at Minnesota on Dec. 29-30.
Canisius also hosted a ranked team, with No. 3 Clarkson paying a visit to Harborcenter on Saturday. A packed house saw the Golden Griffins come up short, 5-1. It snapped a five-game winning streak for Canisius, while Clarkson extended its winning streak to 10 games.
“You want to play against the best teams in the country,” said Canisius coach Trevor Large after the game. ” We got the benefit of playing Clarkson tonight at Harborcenter; we’re going to get to play them again in a about a month at their place. We’re also going to get to play a really good Cornell team (on Dec. 30) who’s having a great year. That’s what our guys want to do. We want to play the best teams in the country. At the same time, we’re not satisfied with just a good effort against a really good team. We’re playing to beat them.”
Meanwhile, splits and streaks
Niagara was the only team to pick up four conference points this weekend, as the other two series resulted in splits.
Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart split their games in Erie, while Holy Cross and Rochester Institute of Technology settled for two points apiece in Rochester. RIT’s Erik Brown scored in both games, extended his goal-scoring streak to seven games, equaling the school record.
Speaking of streaks, Bentley defeated American International 6-2 on Friday to extend its winning streak to four games after opening the season 1-7-3. The Falcons travel to Brown on Wednesday.