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Niagara enters the homestretch

By Budd Bailey

Sometimes all that’s needed to determine when the games are getting more important is a look at the calendar.

Take men’s college hockey for example. Atlantic Hockey begins its playoffs in the first weekend in March. Admittedly, everyone in the 13-team conference qualifies for the postseason. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something at stake when the regular season winds down.

After all, a first-round bye goes to the top five teams – and at playoff time, it’s a case of the fewer games the better. Then there’s the matter of seedings, as more wins in February could mean a potentially easier opponent in March ... or perhaps a surprise home game down the road.

So it was a good time to take a drive to the Dwyer Arena to check in on Niagara’s hockey team. The Purple Eagles, in seventh place in the AHA standings, helped themselves a bit in the standings with a 6-3 win over Army West Point.

“I thought it was a weird game, with some oddities and the way it played out,” coach Jason Lammers of NU said. “We persevered through a lot. … Offensively it was fun to see them break out. We’ve been really working on that a lot. Defensively, we had good sticks and good habits.”

If there ever was a game that could be divided into two halves, this was it. The Eagles dominated the first 30 minutes of the game, jumping out to a 5-1 lead. Tyler Wallace led the way with a goal and two assists – all in the first period. It looked like a night where everyone wearing purple could have an enjoyable evening.

Of course, that usually doesn’t work out the way you want. In this case, the Black Knights closed to within 5-3 early in the third period to put the idea in everyone’s head that an improbable comeback was at least possible.

“That’s athletics and that’s sports,” Lammers said about the flat spot. “You see that almost every night, even in the NHL. Scores evaporate on people. I thought our guys did a really good job. We bent but didn’t break. We had to find ways to make plays to get us through that:”

The culprit was penalties. Niagara took a couple of majors to give Army West Point the chance to rally a bit. The Knights scored one power-play goal and added another at even strength. That certainly collected some momentum and caused the Purple Eagles to run out of gas a bit temporarily… but only temporarily.

“That’s where my stomach went from easy night to antacid,” Lammers said with a laugh. “The guys made some adjustments. Those are tough moments and they are stressful moments. They can also tire you out, but they are in great shape. In my opinion that was difference in the game.”

“Coach did a good job of reminding us that obviously the game was not over,” Niagara’s Olivier Gauthier said. “We had to work hard. On the five-on-three, we’ve been practicing the whole year so we were ready for it.”

What’s more, we all know that kids from Army aren’t going to quit. The players are busy enough with their studies at the military academy. Throw in a Division I hockey schedule, and you’re dealing with a special bunch.

“They work hard, they have a good mental game as well,” Gauthier said about the Black Knights. “It’s a good mental challenge for us to see if we can compete with them physically because we know they are in great shape. I think we showed we could play with them.”

Even so, Lars Rodne stopped the bleeding for Niagara with a power-play goal with 8:24 left in the game. It was a matter of running out the clock from there, as NU moved to 14-14-3, 12-8-3 AHA.

Hanging over everyone’s head in the conference is what happened last season. Canisius had a surprise run to the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed, beating No. 7 Holy Cross in the final. If that doesn’t put an idea in everyone’s head that anything is possible, well, it should.

“If you can set the table, it helps,” Lammers said. “We asked the guys for help the rest of the way. They did a nice job of preparing themselves and preparing each other to have the success we had tonight.

“I think now it’s team performance. …. Now you just need to perform, each and every night and each and every practice – find ways to have a success.”

In the Eagles’ case, their last five games in including Friday night’s contest are against opponents below them in the standings. After another game with Army, Niagara closes with three games with Mercyhurst. That first-round bye isn’t out of reach. NU entered the weekend tightly bunched with Bentley, Air Force and AIC in the four through seven slots. Moving up two spots to the coveted No. 5 position doesn’t seem absurd.

“We’ve been talking a lot about being in the present,” Lammers said. “That’s all we can control. We’re not looking forward. We’re in the moment. We weren’t getting caught up in what-ifs.”  

But wins are needed to get there, beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday. That’s a short turnaround, but the Eagles will be ready to go against the Black Knights.

“Oh yeah,” Gauthier said with enthusiasm.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)  

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