The Niagara men’s hockey team finished an overtime goal from the championship game last year and that left a young group wanting more.
The Purple Eagles took some lumps with a tough first semester schedule, but came back with a strong second half, going 12-3-2 to close out the regular season with a 17-11-9 mark. They won their first-round Atlantic Hockey playoff series over Robert Morris at home, then lost to RIT in overtime in the conference semifinals.
With most key players returning, Niagara is poised to make a run at the Atlantic Hockey title again this year. The Purple Eagles were picked to finish second in the preseason poll behind two-time defending champion Air Force.
“I’m excited about how we came back with our fitness and I just sense a confident group in that locker room having the experience we had second semester,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think that motivated our guys.”
Niagara opens the season at 4 p.m. Saturday, hosting Bowling Green. It’s the earliest opener in college hockey and scheduling conflicts led to the early game. Canisius, meanwhile, hosts an exhibition game against Ottawa University at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Buffalo State Ice Arena and opens its regular season at the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 13.
For Niagara, the year starts with one huge hole in the lineup — Scott Arnold left the school after his sophomore season to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. Arnold’s 10 goals were third most on the team last season.
Look for seniors Giancarlo Iuorio and Marc Zanette to carry the scoring load for the Purple Eagles. Senior defensemen Dan Weiss and Jason Beattie have been paired since their freshman year and anchor not just the blue line but set the tone for the team in the locker room. Burkholder said senior defenseman C.J. Chartrain gained confidence after attending a Washington Capitals camp over the summer.
Niagara has three goaltenders fighting for the top spot — juniors Cody Campbell and Carsen Chubak, and sophomore Colby Drost.
Canisius is looking for more goals, 50 more to be exact. That’s the threshold coach Dave Smith set for his club as it prepares for the season.
Last year, the Golden Griffins scored 66 goals en route to a 10-22-5 record. Part of that was by design. After losing the most prolific offensive players in program history, Smith wanted his young team to concentrate on defense.
“Collectively as a team, we started to understand what we’re trying to do but individually is where the real progress was seen,” Smith said. “Guys were doing what we were asking and they are things that don’t get measured on the scoreboard — they walled off a guy on this play, they were physical on that play, they had great stick position. We worked on lots of little nuances players coming out of juniors don’t always have.”
With a year of defensive philosophy and fine-tuning under their belts, the Griffs are ready to be let loose offensively and create more scoring chances, particularly by capitalizing on the power play and odd-man rushes. Where will the goals come from?
“I think one of our strengths is our depth, so it will be a collective effort,” Smith said. “I can’t tell who’s going to have the hot year.”
Top returning scorers for the Griffs are junior forwards Kyle Gibbons and Taylor Law, who both had 11 goals and 15 assists last year. The team returns 22 letter winners and 93.6 percent of its scoring from last season.
Niagara-Canisius volleyball clash
The Canisius women’s volleyball team puts its seven-game win streak on the line when it hosts Niagara at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Koessler Center. The Griffs are in first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with a 6-0 mark, 9-7 overall.
Niagara, the three-time defending MAAC champ, is 4-2 in conference play and 7-9 overall.
Niagara to announce new AD
Niagara will hold a press conference at 2:30 today to introduce its new athletic director. The position has been empty since this summer when Ed McLaughlin left to take the head job at Virginia Commonwealth.