Four years in the making, Niagara enjoying first-half run to national ranking

 (James P. McCoy/Niagara Athletic Communications)
Niagara’s Derian Plouffe leads the Purple Eagles in scoring with 19 points through 15 games (photo: James P. McCoy/Niagara Athletic Communications).

In 2013, Niagara qualified for the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry.

It was, to date, the first and only time an Atlantic Hockey team earned the reward in conference history.

The Purple Eagles finished that season ranked No. 15 after losing to North Dakota in the West Regional’s first round, and they started the next year ranked No. 20. Pollsters dropped them out of the rankings, however, after they opened 2013-14 with a pair of losses out of conference to Clarkson.

It’s been over four years since Niagara held a number next to its name as a ranked team. A total of 1,513 days have passed, and an odyssey dropped them to the bottom of the AHC standings. It was never a question of desire, but four years seemingly took its toll as the preseason coaches poll voted the team in last place to start the season.

It had been more than four years since Niagara last graced the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. It did not reach any further as the Purple Eagles entered the national rankings this week as the No. 20 team.

“It’s more important for the players, the university and the program,” first-year coach Jason Lammers said. “It’s an indication of what Niagara has wanted to do with hockey, and it’s been an impressive run. We have great staff development here, and this is a great accomplishment for everyone associated with the school and this program.”

Niagara’s swift ascension is coinciding with the end of the season’s first half.

The Purple Eagles are 9-5-1 and are riding the wave of a road sweep of Air Force. It improved them to 3-1 in their last four games after a split with AIC, and it’s the second time this season the team rolled with momentum. Niagara opened the season 5-2-1 before sliding into a 2-2 stretch.

But even in defeat, the Purple Eagles retained an edge. They led Cornell by two goals twice in a one-off game with the Big Red, a team with claims to the national top ranking. Niagara led 3-1 after two periods of play at Lynah Rink, then led 4-2 at the five-minute mark. Even though the Big Red rallied with three goals to take the victory, it earned Niagara a measure of national respect.

The success stems from the commitment of a hungry, experienced core looking for the next step. Senior Derian Plouffe leads all scorers with 19 points, and junior Tanner Lomsnes has 12 goals through 15 games. Junior Johnny Curran has six goals, four of which are on the power play.

That experience blends with new, breakout stars. Sophomore Noah Delmas has as many points this season as he had all last year, thanks in no small part to 16 assists. Freshman Eric Cooley sits at a plus-3 rating with 11 points. And rookie netminder Brian Wilson is 7-4-1 with a 2.44 GAA, third best in Atlantic Hockey.

“I’m so impressed with the team’s commitment to improving,” Lammers said. “They want to get better. They have an increased emotional intelligence, and that’s helped drive us as coaches.”

For Niagara, the road ahead now becomes the next step. Being ranked is a great success, but it doesn’t win an Atlantic Hockey championship or get the team through to the NCAA tournament.

The first half of the season is just that, and college hockey is always broken into two distinct pieces. In order to start the second half as a nationally-recognized team, Niagara needs to look at the immediate road in front of it. The first half ends this weekend, after all, with a home-and-home series on opposite ends of the South Grand Island Bridge against its most passionate rival in Canisius.

“We have to really manage the emotions of having some success,” Lammers said of the road ahead. “Success only kills you if you swallow it. We haven’t arrived yet, and our goal is to move onto bigger and better things.”

Niagara takes on the team “on the other side of the bridge” this weekend with a home game on Friday before heading to the HarborCenter on Saturday. Friday’s game is at 7:05 p.m., with Saturday’s road matchup at 4:35 p.m.

Don’t You Forget About Me

The Bentley Falcons hit Thanksgiving a couple of weeks ago without a whole lot of positive on the scoresheet.

The team sat 1-7-3 overall after a six-game winless streak. Losing back-to-back games in Canisius rounded out a five-game road trip where the team earned a single point – in the first game at Niagara three weeks prior. Injuries littered the depth chart as key, experienced players at multiple positions went down.

That home, Thanksgiving cooking proved exactly what the Falcons needed, however.

They rattled off a four-point weekend against Robert Morris, scoring nine goals in two games. An overtime winner over then-No. 18 UMass Lowell kept the good times rolling into last weekend, where Bentley dominated a talented AIC squad in a 6-2 win.

“I think it tells a great bit of the character in our locker room and the leadership in that room,” Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist said. “I often say that you judge teams by how they deal with adversity. We certainly went through adversity being 1-7-3, but sticking together and being on the positive for four games is a sign of the leadership and character of the guys in the team.”

After playing without top goal scorer Jonathan Desbiens and defenseman Alexey Solovyev, the Falcons became deeper by forcing players into new roles. Matt Riggleman and Drew Callin enter Wednesday night with five-game point streaks of nine and seven, respectively, while Connor Brassard and Ryner Gorowsky have points in each of the team’s four wins.

In net, Aidan Pelino earned two consecutive Goalie of the Week honors, posting a 4-0 record with a .936 save percentage and 1.97 GAA through the winning streak, while Jayson Argue remains out of the lineup.

“I thought we saw a lot of growth in the trip to Canisius,” Soderquist said. “We didn’t get the wins and didn’t finish a few plays, but we started seeing chemistry in lines and guys played better hockey. We built off those losses and came into Robert Morris to play one period at a time. We’re a young group, so we had to learn how to win games and how each shift matters. It’s a cliche, but teams have to learn that.”

Bentley sits in sixth place without any conference games remaining in the first half of the year. The Falcons wrap up December with nonconference games against Brown and Dartmouth, starting the Ivy League circuit on Wednesday in Providence.

“We have a great opportunity,” Soderquist said. “We did what we needed to do in the last two or three games and got some needed points to be around the mid pack. The Atlantic is always a second-half league. We’ve put ourselves in a good position, so if we have a good January and into February, we can be a home playoff team. That’s been our goal since the start of the year.”

Both games for Bentley this week begin at 7 p.m.

Halfway to the Lerchies

Both Chris Lerch and I name our end-of-season all-conference team and award winners with an elaborate ceremony called “The Lerchies.” It’s so over-the-top, actually, that nobody’s ever actually seen it. Believe me, though, it’s done with the utmost of presentational precision.

Since this is our last featured post for the first half of the year, it’s worth looking at the front runners for this year’s Lerchies. Nobody has anything sewn up, but at the halfway point of the season, these are the people who we think have performed pretty well.

First Team:
Chris:
F – Dylan McLaughlin, Jr., Canisius
F – Scott Pooley, Jr., Holy Cross
F – Derian Plouffe, Sr., Niagara
D – Noah Delmas, So., Niagara
D – Brennan Kapcheck, Fr., AIC
G – Paul Berrafato, Sr., Holy Cross

Dan:
F – Dylan McLaughlin, Jr., Canisius
F – Scott Pooley, Jr., Holy Cross
F – Tanner Lomsnes, Jr., Niagara
D – Noah Delmas, So., Niagara
D – Brennan Kapcheck, Fr., AIC
G – Stefano Durante, Fr., AIC

Second Team:
Chris:
F – Erik Brown, Jr., RIT
F – Tanner Lomsnes, Jr., Niagara
F – Ryan Schmelzer, Sr., Canisius
D – Dalton MacAfee, Jr., Army West Point
D – Lester Lancaster, Jr., Mercyhurst
G – Stefano Durante, Fr., AIC

Dan:
F – Michael Louria, Jr., Robert Morris
F – Derian Plouffe, Sr., Niagara
F – Michael Wilson, So., Army West Point
D – Dalton MacAfee, Jr., Army West Point
D – Alex Wilkinson, So., Army West Point
G – Paul Berrafato, Sr., Holy Cross

Third Team:
Chris:
F – Vito Bavaro, So., Sacred Heart
F – Luke Lynch, So., Robert Morris
F – Michael Wilson, So., Army West Point
D – Janis Jaks, So., AIC
D – Alex Wilkinson, So., Army West Point
G – Cole Bruns, Sr., Army West Point

Dan:
F – Marc Johnstone, Fr., Sacred Heart
F – Matt Riggleman, So., Bentley
F – Ryan Schmelzer, Sr., Canisius
D – Janis Jaks, So., AIC
D – Cameron Heath, Jr., Canisius
G – Cole Bruns, Sr., Army West Point

Player of the (half) Year:
Chris: Dylan McLaughlin, Canisius
Dan: Dylan McLaughlin, Canisius

Rookie of the (half) Year:
Chris: Brennan Kapcheck, AIC
Dan: Brennan Kapcheck, AIC

Coach of the (half) Year:
Chris: Jason Lammers, Niagara
Dan: Eric Lang, AIC

Players of the Week

Here’s quick look back at the honorees from this past week in Atlantic Hockey:

Player of the Week – Niagara’s Tanner Lomsnes: He scored four points in last week’s sweep over Air Force, including a +3 rating on Saturday.

Defensive Player of the Week – Army West Point’s Alex Wilkinson: Wilkinson had two points in Army’s 3-1 win over No. 17 Colgate, both by way of the assist, while blocking three shots.

Goalie of the Week – Bentley’s Aidan Pelino: Back-to-back awards for Pelino, who also won last week. He finished games against No. 18 UMass Lowell and AIC with a combined 56 saves, good enough for a 1.94 GAA.

Rookie of the Week – Niagara’s Brian Wilson: The goalie saved 63 shots and allowed five total goals against Air Force, good enough for a .926 save percentage.

Before I get stuck in the chimney…

Since this is the last feature week before the first half season’s end, I wanted to take the opportunity to wish you and yours a very happy and healthy holiday season.

I always feel fortunate to be a part of Atlantic Hockey, and it’s because it has a great community that’s passionate about the sport.

For everyone who reads this space, we thank you for all of your time, and personally speaking, I can’t wait to see what 2018 holds. May your ponds be frozen and your skates sharpened. On behalf of Chris and to all of you yours, a very Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year.

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