Team of the Week: Niagara
by Melissa Burgess/CHN Reporter
Slowly but surely, the eyes of the hockey world are turning to the Niagara Purple Eagles.
The Purple Eagles, with a record of 9-5-1 entering this weekend, are sitting at the top of Atlantic Hockey. Their season so far has included games against tough non-conference opponents Colgate, Union, RPI and Cornell, and they recently swept conference foe Air Force, on the road, for the first time since February 2005.
As the season continued and the team kept finding ways to win, more attention continued moving toward Niagara.
How did Niagara get here? The team is a mix of new blood and old blood, with a host of returning players led by a revamped coaching staff. Eighteen players returned from last year’s team, including 12 forwards.
That includes the team’s top three scorers from last season: senior Stanislav Dzakhov, sophomore Kris Spriggs and junior Johnny Curran. The three combined for 48 points last season, but aren’t producing quite as much this year so far. Instead, other players are finding their offensive prowess and bringing a boost to the team. Senior Derian Plouffe leads the Purple Eagles with 19 points, while junior Tanner Lomsnes and sophomore defender Noah Delmas each have 17 points.
Undeniably, one of the key pieces to Niagara’s success this season comes in freshman goaltender Brian Wilson. He joined the Purple Eagles after spending last year in the BCHL and has stepped right into a top goaltending role, with a 2.44 goals against average and .909 save percentage.
Following the sweep over Air Force to open the month of December, he received more accolades, being named Rookie of the Week by Atlantic Hockey. He made a combined 63 saves in the pair of wins.
The team is stacked with juniors (10) and seniors (5), but also has a healthy dose of new players with eight freshmen, including Wilson. That mix of players with collegiate experience and without helps provide an interesting spark that seems to be pushing the team every step of the way.
Head coach Jason Lammers noted his team’s speed as a priority and an asset.
“The guys have really committed to each other and are starting to trust themselves,” Lammers said after the first win over Air Force.
The Purple Eagles started off this season with a fizzle in a 5-1 loss to Colgate but opened the home portion of the season with a pair of overtime wins over Robert Morris and non-conference RPI, both 4-3 decisions. They’ve played a tight game this season, with eight games being decided by one- or two-goal deficits.
After a 4-1 loss to AIC, the Purple Eagles headed to Colorado for the series against Air Force. They won 6-3 in the opening game, then 5-2 in the second of the series.
Plouffe led the Purple Eagles with a pair of goals and an assist in the win Friday, while Eric Cooley and Lomsnes each had a goal and two assists. Nick Farmer scored twice in Saturday’s win, and the Purple Eagles held Air Force fruitless on nine power plays over the course of the weekend.
That pair of wins was enough to propel Niagara to the top of the conference.
“I think it’s real important that the guys continue to believe in themselves and they did a great job of that,” Lammers said.
Looking forward, Niagara faces a lot of conference action in 2018 — but it has four games left in 2017 first. The Purple Eagles will face Canisius, the second-place team in the conference, this weekend for a spirited home-and-home “Battle of the Bridge,” then visit Ohio State for a pair of games at the end of the month.