LEWISTON – There are still three games left in Niagara’s regular season. But with the Purple Eagles heading out on the road with their first Atlantic Hockey regular season championship already clinched, the league made its trophy presentation and the team posed for its championship team photo Friday night.
It’s been a forgone conclusion for much of the season that Niagara, ranked 14th in the country, would be the top seed in the Atlantic Hockey tournament. With their position in the playoffs set, there would have been plenty of opportunity for the Purple Eagles to put it on cruise control in their final home game.
But that’s not the Niagara way.
The Purple Eagles played a solid first two periods and held off a desperate Mercyhurst rally for a 4-2 win in front of 1,559 at Dwyer Arena.
“We had a meeting with the seniors on Monday to tell them that we still had a lot to play for,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We set some goals for the last four games to keep us going and the guys have been real professional about it, real focused.”
The regular season trophy is nice, but it’s just one step on the way to what the Purple Eagles believe is possible this season.
“We were able to check one thing off our list this year,” senior captain Dan Weiss said about the regular season title. “We know what we want to do still and that’s win a playoff championship and go to the NCAA tournament.”
“It’s about momentum and confidence moving on to the next thing,” senior Jason Beattie said. “The whole room believes we can win. It’s about continuing to build.”
There was plenty to build off from the first two periods Friday as Niagara bolted to a 4-0 lead with four goal scorers.
Freshman Hugo Turcotte got it started just 1:45 into the game on a nice tip off a pass from Beattie.
Senior Giancarlo Iuorio made it 2-0 with just under three minutes left in the first, picking up a loose puck outside the blue line and going in alone on Mercyhurst goalie Max Strang.
It was Iuorio’s 17th goal of the year and gives him 96 career points, four shy of becoming just the 14th player in Niagara history to hit the 100-point mark.
Weiss and Beattie scored in the second period. It was the first goal for Beattie, who ripped a shot from the blue line.
Mercyhurst (12-10-2 AH) scored twice in the third period, but Carsen Chubak made several key saves late in the game to preserve the win.
“No game is perfect,” Burkholder said. “They’re a good team and they took it to us in the third.”
With the win, the Purple Eagles extended their unbeaten streak at Dwyer to 20 games and improved to 19-3-2 in Atlantic Hockey, 20-6-5 overall.
The teams conclude their home-and-home weekend in Erie, Pa., at 7:05 tonight. Niagara then plays at Air Force on March 1-2 to close out the regular season.\
The Purple Eagles will enjoy a first-round bye as Atlantic Hockey’s No. 1 seed and host a best-of-three quarterfinal series beginning March 15.