LEWISTON – It had been more than a month since Giancarlo Iuorio played a game.
The senior forward was the leading scorer for the Niagara hockey team back on Jan. 5 when he suffered an upper body injury against Atlantic Hockey rival Air Force.
Friday night, Iuorio returned to the lineup after a 10-game absence and did it in style, scoring three goals – including the game-winner with 53.7 seconds left – as No. 15 Niagara defeated Robert Morris, 4-3, in front of 1,154 at Dwyer Arena. With the win, NU clinched at least a share of the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title.
Nothing was prettier than that final goal. Marc Zanette stole the puck from a Robert Morris player behind the Colonials’ net and fed it Iuorio, who fired the puck into the far upper left-hand corner.
“Marc did a great job,” Iuorio said. “It was basically a 1-on-2 down low and he pressured the guy who turned back into him. Marc kicked the puck out to me in the slot. I didn’t have much room to shoot and just hoped it would go in.”
Iuorio might have been hoping on that particular shot, but his success is no surprise.
When he went out with the injury, he was the nation’s leading scorer with 12 goals. While his teammates demonstrated the depth of the program by going 7-2-1 in his absence to help NU keep its national ranking, Iuorio kept working. He kept up his fitness level with bike workouts and skating drills.
It wasn’t quite the same as playing, but he did everything in his power to be ready when he was cleared for game day.
The Purple Eagles are happy he’s back and not just because of his goal production.
“I liked him on the bench,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “It got quiet there in the rink and when it got quiet, he was the guy up on the bench, on his feet, trying to get the boys up. When you need a big play, he’s your goal scorer. Every time they got back in the game, ‘G’ was a big momentum swing for us. It’s great to have him back.”
Niagara needed his energy, leadership and production in Friday as it struggled with the speed of Robert Morris.
The Colonials took a 1-0 lead midway through the first period. They pressed and moved the puck quickly on a delayed holding call on C.J. Chartrain. Matt Cope blasted the puck from the point and it shot past Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak on his stick side.
Iuorio got Niagara on the board, tipping in a shot from Kevin Ryan at the 14:24 mark of the first.
Niagara took a 2-1 lead with 9:10 left in the second period. Ryan Murphy’s shot in close to Robert Morris goalie Eric Levine came flying out to the right circle. Kevin Albers was there to line up the shot and fire the puck into a nearly open net. Iuorio added his second goal of the game less than two minutes later.
Robert Morris (10-11-1) got a goal back 27 seconds later when Zac Lynch beat Chubak. The Colonials exerted offensive pressure for much of the third period, finally tying it with 4:01 left on Scott Jacklin’s goal.
A penalty to Robert Morris for elbowing and to Niagara for roughing with 1:56 left resulted in 4-on-4 hockey for the rest of regulation. It was then that Zanette and Iuorio combined for the game-winning play.
“Give this team credit,” Burkholder said. “Guys stepped up, but obviously you want one of your senior captains and leading scorer back in the lineup. To get production like he did tonight is amazing. And for him to get the winner at the end ... that was an NHL-caliber goal.”
It was the second hat trick of the season for Iuorio, who scored three against Connecticut on Nov. 2. It also marked his fourth multi-goal game of the season.
With the win, Niagara improved to 19-5-5 overall and 18-2-2 in Atlantic Hockey.
The teams travel to Pittsburgh tonight to complete the home-and-home series.