This wasn’t the way they wanted the regular season to end. Sure, the Purple Eagles said all the right things when they clinched the Atlantic Hockey regular season title and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs two weeks early. But staying motivated for those final four games was a bit more difficult than they expected.
Niagara went to Colorado Springs and was swept by Air Force to close out the regular season. With a first-round bye the Purple Eagles had two weeks to think about what went wrong as they skidded into this weekend’s quarterfinal series with RIT.
“I feel like we got a little too cocky,” senior forward Giancarlo Iuorio said. “We figured we could just come to the rink and win games. That’s not the case. We have to work hard. Every team in this league is a good team.”
The Purple Eagles return to the rink rested and focused and ready for RIT in the best-of-three quarterfinal series that begins tonight (7:05, 1440 AM) in Dwyer Arena.
Canisius will also begin its quarterfinal series tonight as the Golden Griffins travel to Colorado Springs to face No. 2 Air Force (9:05).
The winners of the quarterfinal series advance to the Atlantic Hockey Frozen Four, with semifinals and the final March 22-23 at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.
The road to Rochester begins in the comfy confines of home for Niagara (21-8-5). This season the Purple Eagles are 13-0-2 in Dwyer and have not suffered a home loss in 20 games. RIT (15-16-5) has struggled in Dwyer, going 0-6-4.
But the Tigers have a way to kick it up in the postseason. While RIT is the No. 8 seed in the tournament, thanks in large part to ending the regular season with a pair of losses to Canisius, Niagara is not in danger of taking the Tigers lightly. In three regular-season games between the teams this year, Niagara earned just one win, a 6-4 decision in Dwyer on Jan. 26. The other two meetings both ended in ties.
“It’s RIT-Niagara. These games have been unbelievable in regards to rivalry,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “It was an even series and the guys know it. ... RIT is not an eight-seed coming in to play. They’re more like a 1-C in my opinion. That’s how good they are. And our guys know that.”
RIT advanced to the quarterfinals by sweeping American International, 2-1 and 7-1, in the first round. The Tigers come into the weekend wit the second-best power play in the country (25 percent), meaning Niagara will pay more attention to defense and sacrifice some aggression in the offensive zone.
“We always let our guys create offensively but we’re going to have to keep a guy high and maybe give up the three-man cycle and make it a two-man cycle just because their transition game is so good,” Burkholder said. “We have to be really good on getting back at defense. They’re that good and that fast.”
Those losses to Air Force might just prove to be helpful to the Purple Eagles. While they returned to the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national ranking (No. 14) and are at No. 15 in the USCHO.com poll, they slipped in the PairWise to No. 13. The PairWise computer rankings help determine at-large postseason bids for an NCAA Tournament field of 16 teams.
That puts Niagara on the bubble for an at-large bid and creates a sense of playoff urgency to control their own fate by vying for the automatic bid.
Meanwhile, Canisius advanced to the quarterfinals with its sweep of Bentley last weekend to face Air Force.
The Golden Griffins (15-18-5) have won four straight. It’s their longest winning streak since taking four straight in 2004.
The Falcons (17-11-7) have saved their best hockey for the second half of the season, going 11-2-3 in their last 16 games to take second place in the conference standings and earn a first-round bye. Air Force is 5-0-5 against Canisius in the last 10 meetings but this season’s series featured close games.
The teams tied in Buffalo while Air Force swept the weekend in Colorado, 3-1 and 3-2. The 3-2 loss for the Griffs marked the first time all season they lost a game when holding the lead after two periods.