Two days after the loss, with emotions still running high, Niagara hockey coach Dave Burkholder stood before his team and gave his players the cold, hard truth. He made his way around the quiet dressing room and addressed each player before stopping at star goaltender Carsen Chubak.
Chubak had been the least of Burkholder’s problems. In fact, he was the biggest reason Niagara soared to the top of the Atlantic Hockey Association and ascended to No. 14 in the national rankings. He was named the top player in the conference and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in the country.
The cold, hard truth was that he wasn’t good enough in the conference tournament, which was a major reason Niagara was sent packing after the semifinals. Making matters worse was that the 5-3 defeat came against archrival Canisius. Burkholder also knew the loss, while difficult to stomach, wouldn’t end their season.
Niagara finished with a 23-9-5 record, good enough for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament when the seeds were announced later Sunday. The loss in the conference tourney was a hiccup on Purple Eagles’ way to a greater opportunity, one that comes Friday when they play North Dakota in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“As a coaching staff, we had to get some things off of our chest,” Burkholder said before practice Tuesday. “The three F’s that my dad taught me: Be fair, be frank, be friendly. I started at one side of the room and told guys what needed to be done. We didn’t know we were playing North Dakota, but whoever our opponent was would be off the charts.
“When I got to Carsen, I said, ‘Carsen, you’ve had a heck of a year, but you were not very good Friday night. You need to be the first star in the regionals if we’re going to advance.’ The kid has had an unbelievable season. I’m not putting pressure on him. He’s the goalie and he’s going to have to have a big game for us.”
And that’s also the truth.
North Dakota for years has been a superpower in college hockey. It has won seven national titles. The team is making its 11th straight trip to the NCAA tournament, the longest such active streak in the country. It is ranked seventh in the country, seven spots ahead of Niagara, in the latest U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
The UND program has 14 NHL draft picks on the roster, or 14 more than Niagara has produced in its history. It has two Hobey Baker finalists in forwards Corban Knight and Danny Kristo, who have combined for 40 goals and 99 points this season. North Dakota finished behind second-ranked Minnesota in the WCHA.
It would be terrifying for Niagara if it didn’t have the great equalizer in Chubak, one of the nation’s top netminders. He has drawn attention from NHL scouts all season and will enter the game with a 23-6-5 record with a 1.91 goals-against average, a .938 save percentage and six shutouts.
“I’ve been at this for so long,” Chubak said. “Sometimes, I try to feel like there’s pressure because it helps me concentrate and give a little bit more. I’m very good mentally. I wouldn’t say I would be mentally overwhelmed. It’s a huge opportunity and a big opportunity for the program, too.”
Spend a few minutes with the junior, and you get the sense there isn’t much that rattles him. He’s a former pitcher who threw in the mid-80 mph range and believes he could play baseball for Niagara if he could swing both sports. He led his Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, team to a national midget title.
Pressure is pressure, no matter the age, the sport or the opponent.
The great ones realize as much, embrace the situation and perform. He has been so good for so many games this season that the percentages could be in his favor. The last thing he would expect is another clunker. He bears a resemblance to Rick DiPietro and carries himself with similar confidence without the cocky attitude.
“I don’t feel like I have to do everything,” he said. “I feel like I have to do my job to the best of my ability. It’s the reason you can’t feel pressure. You can only do the best you can do. You can only give 100 percent. Sometimes, you get all these things in your head. You get on the ice and realize you’re just playing hockey.”
And that’s the truth, too.
North Dakota can be beaten. Any team can at this time of year. A goalie can make all the difference. Chubak has proven he’s nearly unbeatable when he gets on a roll. He had five shutouts in an eight-game stretch in which Niagara took off on a 12-game unbeaten streak. He posted back-to-back shutouts over Connecticut in one weekend; those came after two super games against Clarkson.
Anyway, after everything he has been through, a single game against any team should feel like a speed bump. Chubak’s freshman season was cut short after nine games when he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee. The surgery and subsequent rehabilitation led to hip problems that required surgery, wiping out his sophomore season.
Chubak was able to practice last season, but he had no chance of challenging Chris Noonan for the No. 1 job. Chubak spent the season working behind the scenes, getting his body back in order and working on his game. He could sense everything coming together midway through last season, but it was too late.
The goaltending situation was so unsettled before this season that Burkholder planned for an open competition that included Chubak, Cody Campbell and Colby Drost. It lasted all of three days. Chubak became the clear No. 1. It seemed the only person not surprised by his effectiveness was Chubak himself.
In fact, he was mildly annoyed that he wasn’t included among the preseason favorites to be named the best player in the conference. He didn’t care that he played only 10 games in two seasons and was coming off two surgeries before this season. Or that Niagara didn’t even know if he was the best goalie on the team, let alone in the conference.
Chubak didn’t look around the room, as Burkholder did Sunday. He looked around the entire conference and thought, “Why not me?” He was named the best player in the conference and became one of the best in the nation. Now, he’s hoping to take his game, and his team, another step.
“It’s really nice to have a second opportunity,” he said. “Playing against a team like North Dakota, it’s going to be a battle. Everybody is going to come prepared. I just have to play my game. Hopefully, if I do well, we can definitely beat them.”