LEWISTON — Marc Zanette remembers last year’s semifinal game against RIT. The game in Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena was in overtime, but the forward had been injured and was back in locker room.
“I was lying on the medical table and I heard a roar and I knew those weren’t our fans,” Zanette said. “I remembered that feeling last year, lying there helpless. That pushed me tonight. I didn’t want them to end our season again.”
Zanette made sure there was no chance of RIT ending Niagara’s run in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs this time. The senior fired in a pass from Ryan Murphy with 6:48 left in overtime to give the Purple Eagles a 2-1 triumph over the Tigers in front of 1,016 at Dwyer Arena Saturday.
The win gave Niagara a sweep of the best-of-three quarterfinal series.
The Purple Eagles advance to the Atlantic Hockey championship weekend and the semifinals on Friday back at Blue Cross Arena against Canisius, which beat Air Force in overtime Saturday to sweep its series. Game time is 4 p.m.
But Niagara (23-8-5), which won the regular season title, had to scrap back in this game. The Tigers came out with aggression and crispness, putting Niagara on its heels for some of the worst hockey the Purple Eagles have played this season.
RIT dominated the first period from the opening faceoff. Just 1:12 into the game, freshman forward Josh Mitchell snapped a shot from the high slot and beat Carsen Chubak for a 1-0 lead.
With 22 seconds left in the period, RIT had a golden chance to extend its lead but the shot on the 2-on-1 break hit the post on Chubak’s stick side and the Purple Eagles escaped the first period trailing by only a goal.
The bright spot for Niagara was that it held RIT to 0 for 4 on the power play that period and held them to 0 for 7 for the game.
“They were all over us and we got into penalty trouble because of their speed and transition,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We were on the wrong side of pucks, the wrong side of defensive scrums. But they didn’t put us away. In the room, we took a deep breath and knew we could get through it.”
“We need to score another goal or two in the first period, which was our best period,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “To be up two or three would be different. But the woulda, couldas, all those other things. The bottom line was that it was a good game and they got the job done.”
In the second period, Chubak continued to come up with big saves but the Purple Eagles could not locate any crispness in their play. Emblematic of the issue: With 12:01 left in the second, Chubak made a save and ended up sprawled on the ice out of position. The Niagara defense blocked the rebound attempt. The Purple Eagles turned up the speed in their transition only to be called on the offside, killing a potential momentum changer.
Niagara finally broke through with 5:43 left in the second when a shot by Patrick Divjak found its way through the pads of Ruby and into the back of the net. From that point on, the Purple Eagles looked more like themselves, finding urgency and better execution and some quality chances before the period closed.
The third period saw Niagara hold a 12-5 advantage in shots on goal, but its power play was dismal. The Purple Eagles went 0 for 1 in the period, then looked to have an excellent opportunity to win the game in regulation when Jason Beattie was tripped by Dan Schuler with 1:06 left to play. But Niagara never was able to set up its attack and then was whistled for too many men on the ice with 16 seconds left in the period.
The penalties carried over and the teams started with 54 seconds of four-on-four before RIT went on the power play. Neither team scored and play started to open up end to end.
Niagara got a power-play chance with 9:40 left in overtime and generated some great scoring chances. While they failed to capitalize, they did seize momentum and shortly after that is when Zanette scored the game-winner.
“It was a bouncing puck in the slot and [Ryan] Murphy got and pulled it wide,” Zanette said. “He pulled a couple of guys with him and fed it, I don’t know how, but under guys’ sticks. It fell on my stick and I shot it as hard as I could.”
“He has a warrior mind-set and is a senior leader,” Burkholder said of Zanette. “I didn’t have to make him a captain because he’s one of our leaders on and off the ice. “
Chubak finished with 34 saves, many which were big-time and at crucial moments. The Niagara defense blocked 30 shots, helping Chubak when at times he fell out of position.
Jordan Ruby finished with 39 saves for RIT, which ends its season at 15-18-5. This will be the first time that the Tigers have not advanced to at least the semifinals since the 2007-08 season.
The win for Niagara extended its Dwyer Arena unbeaten streak to 22 games. That ties the program record and ranks fifth all-time in college hockey.
“We knew we haven’t lost at home in over a year,” Zanette said. “And nobody had doubt that we were going to win this game. We’ve had that feeling. Nobody comes out of here with a win.”