Niagara Enjoying Net Gains
by Timothy O'Donnell/CHN Reporter
On the morning of Jan. 9, the Niagara Purple Eagle awoke to find themselves in ninth place in Atlantic Hockey with 13 points. They trailed then-first place Mercyhurst by seven points. And with about a month and a half left in the season, the Purple Eagles knew they had work to do.
The Purple Eagles won seven straight after that, tying a school record, and jumping to third place, just two points out of first place. The streak ended on Saturday against Mercyhurst.
The secret to the Purple Eagles recent run can be found in net, where Chris Noonan has taken over the starting job. In the seven games, Noonan allowed only six goals and never surrendered more than one in a game.
“He’s fought for every minute that he’s been given,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “He’s mentally in a spot right now, as a senior, that ‘It’s my net’ and it shows.
“It’s not easy but he’s put the team on his back. He’s made some timely saves to keep us in games when we’re behind, keep it close, or when we’ve had a lead he’s made timely saves to get us the momentum back.”
Noonan didn’t play a single minute his freshman year and has had to fight for playing time every year, but seems to have finally grabbed hold of the No. 1 job.
“As a staff you always evaluate guys practices and work habits,” Burkholder said. “Our toughest job is after Thursday’s practice, see who gets to play when the refs show up on Friday. It just got to the point where we didn’t even need to talk about Noonan, his game, or his management. He’s winning. ... There’s really not a lot to talk about.”
Noonan split time with Cody Campbell and Colby Drost for most of this season. But during the Purple Eagles' streak, Noonan received every start and delivered.
“As a team we were playing better,” Noonan said. “I think, personally, I was playing better too. It was just the amount of confidence you have playing. Every win it kept building up. We knew that we were a good team. I don’t want to say it was easy to play, but it just felt comfortable playing and we were doing it over and over again. It really instilled confidence in us that we could keep going.”
Playing more consistently has really helped Noonan start to play well, he said. And it’s helped him put up career bests in save percentage (.941) and goals against average (1.73). His save percentage is the best in the nation while his goals against average ranks second.
“It’s tough as a goalie to play a game here and there and expect to do well,” Noonan said. “What you hope for is that you can get on a roll and play consistently.”
Even though the Purple Eagles streak ended on Saturday, don’t expect Burkholder to make a change in net.
“It wasn’t our best game,” Burkholder said. “We took a lot of penalties. We didn’t have the puck much that night. He played well enough to keep us in and gave us a chance to win. We just didn’t score the tying goal.”
While the defense has been picking up steam, the Purple Eagles offense continued to roll. They averaged four goals a game in the seven games, just above their season average of 3.54.
The Purple Eagles' offense is well spread out. They have eight players with at least five goals and 10 players have 10 points or more.
“It’s probably the most balanced we’ve had here in years. It’s been a different guy every night,” Burkholder said.
And one of those players, Chris Lochner, has done most of his damage in 2012. The freshman has 11 points on the season. Nine of those, including eight goals, have come since the turn of the calendar.
Lochner has recorded at least one point in six of the Purple Eagles' 10 games in 2012. He also scored his first career hat trick on Jan. 21.
His impact during 2012 is due to him being completely healthy, Burkholder said.
“He had knee surgery last spring and wasn’t medically cleared until late, late September,” Burkholder said. “The first semester, even though he did play, he was kind of in and out of the lineup."
With eight teams within six points of first place in Atlantic Hockey, the Purple Eagles will need to carry this momentum for the last three weeks of the season. They finish with series against Air Force, Canisius, and a last weekend meeting with RIT.