LEWISTON — Giancarlo Iuorio and Marc Zanette have been feeding Ryan Murphy all season, and not just on the ice.
The three forwards make up Niagara’s top line and live together off campus, along with teammates Patrick Divjak and Kevin Ryan of Eden. When they’re not talking hockey around the house, it’s because Iuorio and Zanette are too busy in the kitchen making sure Murph and the gang are properly fueled up for practices and games.
“They’re good cooks. They both share the duties and I do the dishes,” said Murphy, who leads the Purple Eagles with 36 points and knows his role at home. “I can’t complain about their cooking. They’re great guys to live with, and they’re great guys to play with.”
Murphy may not dabble in food preparation, but it’s not a secret Niagara’s offense has been cooking throughout the season when he, Iuorio and Zanette buzz around the zone, making life difficult for opposing teams. The trio has combined for 98 points, scoring 46 of the Purple Eagles’ 115 goals. Iuorio has earned the title of executive chef since his return from an upper-body injury nine games ago. The line has piled up 29 points in that span, with Iuorio getting 14 (nine goals, five assists) to run his season total to 34 with a team-best 21 goals. Zanette has 10 goals and 28 points.
The threesome looks to continue feasting on the opposition this afternoon in Grand Rapids, Mich., where 14th-ranked Niagara faces No. 7 North Dakota in the Purple Eagles’ long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament (5:30 p.m., ESPNU, Radio 1440).
“We go as they go and I think our team knows that,” longtime Purple Eagles coach Dave Burkholder said. “I thought they emerged as our top line down the stretch.”
Niagara (23-9-5), the Atlantic Hockey regular-season champion making its first tourney appearance since 2008 and fourth overall, earned an at-large bid and a No. 3 seed in the West Regional. North Dakota (21-12-7), no longer known as the Fighting Sioux (a state vote last June passed a bill outlawing the use of the nickname, prohibiting the school from being able to choose one until 2015), also earned an at-large bid as it makes its 11th straight NCAA appearance, the longest active streak in Division I now that Michigan’s run of 22 ended this season.
UND, the No. 2 seed, is one of six teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to earn spots in the tourney. Minnesota, North Dakota’s longtime league rival, is the top seed in the region and faces Yale in today’s other semifinal at 2 p.m. The winners advance to Saturday’s 4 p.m. regional final.
North Dakota has reached the Frozen Four five times in coach Dave Hakstol’s nine seasons and is vying for the program’s eighth national title overall.
Niagara, which made waves when it made the tournament for the first time as an at-large team in 2000 and earned a first-round triumph over New Hampshire in the West Region, is the first Atlantic Hockey member to earn an at-large bid. This is the first time NU has entered the tournament coming off a loss.
The Purple Eagles were rewarded for handling business within the conference as their PairWise computer ranking, the tool used to determine the field, received assists from fellow Atlantic Hockey members AIC (which beat tourney top seed and national No. 1 Quinnipiac) and Robert Morris (which beat NCAA-qualifier Miami) during the season.
“There are only five playoff champions that go to the tournament and then everyone else that’s going to the tournament is going in as a loser in their conference playoffs,” Burkholder said. “We put the Atlantic Hockey playoff semifinal game behind us. This is a new chapter for Niagara hockey and our guys are thankful for the second opportunity.”
It’s at least one more opportunity for Iuorio, Zanette and Murphy to play together since Iuorio and Zanette are seniors. Murphy is a junior.
Niagara has six players with at least 20 points so it has received some secondary scoring. But Iuorio, Murphy and Zanette — the conference’s defensive player of the year — have clicked at a blazing rate since Iuorio’s return.
“Collectively, we were making up for the loss of ‘G’ but to have ‘G’ back, he’s a points guy,” said Burkholder, noting Iuorio’s value to the lineup.
Iuorio returned with a hat trick and netted the game-winner in a 4-3 win Feb. 15 over Robert Morris that helped Niagara clinch a share of the regular season conference title. The following night, he had a goal and three assists for his first-career four-point game.
Iuorio scored twice last Friday in the 5-3 loss to Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals and has 102 career points — just the 13th player in Purple Eagles history to score at least 100 points.
“Playing with these two guys, they make life pretty easy out there,” said Iuorio. “They’re finding me a lot in the slot. We’ve been clicking all year.”
“He thinks the game really well, which opens up a lot of opportunities for him,” Murphy said. “He’s sound in the defensive zone, always in the shooting lane, and he’s always a threat in the offensive zone.”
Niagara’s top line will need to be at their cycling and pressuring best against a UND crew that starts six NHL draft picks on the blue line, with all but one of them standing at least 6-foot-1. Doing so not only could lead to scoring chances but will slow North Dakota’s offense, which ranks fifth nationally (3.3 goals per game) and is led by the top line of Hobey Baker finalists Danny Kristo and Corban Knight along with freshman phenom Rocco Grimaldi.
“We like the pressure,” Murphy said. “We like being the top line and kind of being the target and kind of proving the other teams wrong. It is going to be hard to defend us.”
Can Niagara cook up a winning recipe one more time?
“We’re going to need to be perfect or close to perfect and I’m excited for the challenge,” Burkholder said. “I know these guys are going to embrace it.
“We had this huge lead in conference and every game that we played, we got everybody’s best game. ... I think going into Friday we can finally say, we’re the hunter, if you will, so yeah, we’re swinging for the fences. I really think we’re going to have a good shot.”