By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
For 40 minutes of play in Dwyer Arena on Friday night, all was well with the Niagara hockey team.
The Purple Eagles had an odd sort of momentum coming into the game. They had played well in their two previous games on the calendar, close losses at No. 8 Penn State a week ago. If Niagara needed some encouragement that it could play with the big boys in spite of a 4-11-3 record, the losses provided it..
They hoped to capitalize on that it against a Holy Cross team that was just behind it in the Atlantic Hockey standings. For two periods, they did just that. The Purple Eagles skated to a 3-1 lead, and looked good doing so.
What’s more, they had ended the second period in perfect form. After Holy Cross had closed to a 2-1 deficit, Eric Cooley knocked home a puck on a scramble in the final eight seconds of the period. It looked like the type of goal that would deflate an opponent for the night.
What could go wrong? Just about everything.
The Crusaders took the first nine shots of the period within the opening nine minutes, and three of them went in. That led to five unanswered goals in the period, and a stunning 6-3 win for Holy Cross.
“Give them credit,” Niagara coach Jason Lammers said. “I thought we were in a real good spot, and I liked the way we answered their goal with ours to be up, 3-1. It’s a maturing moment for our team. It’s something we need to grow threw. Guys have to know that push is coming and make some different decisions with the puck in those first five minutes to take away their hope.”
The barrage started when Kevin Darrar of Holy Cross snapped a shot home from the left side at 1:27 of the period. A little more than a minute later, Connor Jean took a perfect cross-ice pass on the right side and one-timed it in. Four minutes after that, the puck came out of a crowd along the boards in the Niagara zone, and Jean found the net from the slot to give the Crusaders the lead for good.
Holy Cross scored once more on a breakaway and again into an empty net. Niagara goalie Brian Wilson has been quite solid this season, but he didn’t get enough help – especially in the final 20 minutes.
With that, the Eagles’ chances of reaching the .500 mark for the season in the conference were gone for the time being. They fell to 4-6-3.
“It would have been a great milestone for our group, coming off the Penn State weekend,” Lammers. “Everyone was real proud of how hard we played and how we competed. To get to .500 with some of the things we’ve been through and the challenges we’ve had with the schedule would have been great. We’ve got to work a little harder.”
The run was frustrating, particularly because Niagara had done so much good in the opening periods. That performance came without the team’s top scorer. Ryan Naumovski missed the game with an upper-body injury.
Even so, Jack Billings made a big-time move to go through the defense and poke the puck into the net for the game’s first goal. In the second period, Ben Sokay made an absolutely perfect cross-ice pass to Reed Robinson for a tap-in goal.
“I couldn’t ask for more,” Lammers said. “We outshot them, 12-5, in the first period. I think first 30 minutes we gave up five shots on five-on-five. I really loved our game up until that point.”
Alex Patterson got one of them back to cut the lead to one, but Cooley’s late goal looked like a killer … until it wasn’t.
“Tonight was an indication that we can be good and then not so good – all in the same game,” Lammers said.
After opening the season with six straight losses, the Purple Eagles have been trying to climb out of that hole. Just when they had the chance to take another step forward, they slid back down.
The good news is that Niagara will get to try again immediately. Holy Cross finishes the series at Dwyer Arena on Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.
“That’s what I love about college hockey,” Lammers said. “You don’t get to sit on it too long. I think our guys are in great shape, and they’ll respond well.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)