LEWISTON — It’s the time of year when seniors put on a show, when their sense of urgency can lift a team.
Friday night, it was Giancarlo Iuorio who played that role, notching three points with two goals – including the game-winner – and becoming the 13th member of Niagara’s career 100-points club as the Purple Eagles edged RIT, 3-2, in the first game of the best-of-three series in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.
A crowd of 1,187 saw the Purple Eagles extend their unbeaten streak at Dwyer Arena to 21 games while getting their first playoff win of the season, and a bit of revenge against an RIT team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, in an overtime semifinal game.
“It’s all about being the hardest working team right now,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “Will beats skill this time of year. … To get a championship and an NCAA bid it takes four wins. We’ve got one down now.”
Niagara (22-8-5) and RIT (15-17-5) meet again tonight in Dwyer Arena (7:05 p.m., Radio 1440 AM) in Game Two. Game Three, if necessary, will be Sunday night.
The winner of the quarterfinal series advances to next weekend’s Atlantic Hockey Frozen Four at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena.
Friday’s contest was the type of game both coaches expected – tight and physical. Six of the past 10 meetings between these teams have gone to overtime.
After a scoreless first period, RIT got on the board first at 6:11 of the second when Matt Garbowsky put the puck high on an out-of-position Carsen Chubak.
It was just about a minute later when Niagara got the puck past RIT goaltender Jordan Ruby, but the play was whistled dead and the goal immediately waved off as bodies flew into the net. Iuorio was called for goaltender interference, while RIT’s Adam Mitchell was called for boarding. Neither team generated many scoring chances on the ensuing four-on-four, but the Purple Eagles started to play with more urgency.
They drew their second power play of the game and while they didn’t score, they kept possession, worked the zone and put quality shots on Ruby.
Then with 4:58 left in the period, a shot by Iurorio went high and off the glass, with Jason Beattie depositing the rebound into the net to tie the game. It was just the sixth goal in the senior defenseman’s career.
The Purple Eagles came out strong to start the third, and a shot by C.J. Chartrain was tipped in by Iuorio to give Niagara a 2-1 lead with 16:33 left to play.
“The key for us is to establish a good forecheck,” Iuorio said. “We get a lot of momentum off our forecheck. After they scored the first goal, we just needed to stay calm and keep going. We were getting the shots.”
Niagara had done a good job staying out of the box and not giving the second-best power play in the country a chance to work. But midway through the third, Ryan Rashid was called for slashing and Mitchell scored with the man advantage to tie the game with 10:34 to play.
Then two minutes later, Iuorio scored from Marc Zanette and Dan Weiss to again give Niagara the lead.
It was the 100th career point for Iuorio, and it was telling that his linemate Zanette was in on the goal.
“When the game’s on the line, your big guys have to be big,” Burkholder said. “I thought from start to finish Marc Zanette was the guy on that first line. He was the first back on the backcheck. He was relentless on the forecheck. Obviously your top line has to do that for you.”
Chubak came up with some big saves, particularly late as RIT applied constant pressure. He finished with 25 stops while Ruby recorded 29 for RIT.
“The difference tonight might be as simple as blocked shots,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “Never mind that the goaltending was good on both ends, they got some key blocks and we didn’t.
“One area that we want to be better at is blocking shots. That might have been the difference.”