Niagara Making Itself Noticed
Purple Eagles In 1st Place, and No. 17 in Pairwise
by Ryan Hannable/CHN Reporter
In his 12th season at Niagara, coach David Burkholder knew there was something special with his team, not necessarily by what they could do on the ice, but how they interact off the ice.
“Chemistry is a big part of it and in recent years I can’t recall a team that has gotten along this well,” Burkholder said. “They compete really hard Monday-Thursday against each other in practice, but it is a healthy, competitive environment, but I do sense the chemistry is really strong in that room. That’s one of those intangibles that as a coaching staff you can’t really help with so I’ve been really pleased.”
That special team bond has been a major part of the Purple Eagles’ success this season. Currently Niagara is in control of Atlantic Hockey with a 14-1-2 conference record and 15-4-5 overall.
Their 30 points is nine ahead of second place Air Force, while the Purple Eagles also are No. 17 nationally in the latest Pairwise Comparison Ratings.
Junior forward Ryan Murphy agrees team chemistry has played an important role this season.
“Of course, any good team has a good relationship both on and off the ice,” he said. “Everyone gets along real well.”
Another key to Niagara’s success is the balanced scoring they have received from their top three lines.
“On any given night anyone can step up, and we know if our top two lines aren’t clicking our third line has a great chance of chipping one in for us,” said Murphy, who leads the team in scoring with 22 points on nine goals and 13 assists.
Niagara has nine players who have double-digit points on the year, including senior Marc Zanette who is tied for third with 17.
“Our top three lines have been contributing on a consistent basis and no one has really run away in the points yet,” the senior forward said. “We’re getting very balanced scoring so it is tough for teams to focus on one line, because we have three good ones.”
Senior forward Giancarlo Iuorio is second on the team in scoring with 20 points, while leading the team with 12 goals. Junior Ryan Rashid is next in line with 17 points along with Zanette, followed by defenseman Kevin Ryan with 16 rounding out the top five.
“A lot of players get streaky and get on sort of a hot streak and it is amazing how every weekend series someone gets hot and I hope that trend continues,” Burkholder said. “… Every night and every weekend it seems like it is a different line.”
In the preseason Atlantic Hockey poll, Niagara was picked second in the conference, but the team knew they were better than that and would eventually prove it.
“We returned 13 or 14 upperclassmen, so our goal is first in the Atlantic, anything short of that will be a failure,” Zanette said. “The preseason polls didn’t have us anywhere near the top, they were taking other teams, but we knew in our locker room we were the team to beat this year.”
While Niagara has qualified for the NCAA Tournament three times in their history, they haven’t done so as a member of the Atlantic Hockey Association. This is only their third year in the league, after the CHA folded.
“We want to get as many wins and increase our lead going into the Air Force weekend (last series of the year),” Zanette said. “We need to stay healthy because we’ve had a lot of guys injured the past two or three weeks, and just get ready for the playoffs and the Atlantic Hockey Championship.”
Winning the Atlantic Hockey Championship and making the NCAA tournament has been a goal of the team since off-season workouts last spring.
“To start out the year our first goal was to win a regular season championship,” said Burkholder. “This is our third year in Atlantic Hockey and we’ve done nothing. To hang a banner is our first goal and then to obviously be healthy going into the playoffs and hopefully have a long playoff run and get back to the NCAA tournament.”
Niagara’s quest for a title continues this weekend when they host Bentley, where they have a home-unbeaten streak of 15 games.
Riding their depth and team chemistry, Niagara is sure to be a team to be reckoned with come March and playoff time.