GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – When a hockey season comes to an end as suddenly as Niagara University’s did Friday night, it’s difficult to turn that competitive engine off and begin thinking about next year.
The Purple Eagles would prefer to have been playing for a spot in the Frozen Four Saturday against Yale instead of thinking about what could have been following their 2-1 loss to North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But there are no mulligans in competitive sports. While Niagara’s memorable season ended sooner than it would have preferred, it’s important to remember this edition of the Purple Eagles fashioned one of the best seasons Monteagle Ridge has ever seen from the program in its 17 years.
The Purple Eagles were ranked a school record 18 weeks in the national poll. They won 23 games, the second-most in a single-season by the team trailing only the 30 won by the 1999-2000 team.
Junior goaltender Carsen Chubak became a national story after posting four shutouts during a five-game stretch earlier this season, earned Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year honors and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Senior Marc Zanette earned conference defensive player of the year.
Let’s not forget, Niagara won the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title and became the first member of the league to not only earn an at-large bid to the tournament but also receive a No. 3 seed – a major accomplishment. That enabled them, along with conference tournament champion Canisius College, to put Division I college hockey in the spotlight in a way it’s never been before in Western New York.
“We’re a bit disappointed with the outcome,” senior assistant captain Giancarlo Iuorio said. “We had the lead going into the third but I’m proud of every single one of these guys. We battled hard and it was a good year.”
Said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, who earned Atlantic Hockey Coach of the Year honors: “It’s one of the best seasons we’ve gone through as a program and obviously very proud of the team’s accomplishments. To be nationally ranked for almost the entire season, that’s an unreal accomplishment. Add to that the regular-season title and all the accolades that the guys won, it was a fun ride.”
Are the pieces in place for Niagara to do something it hasn’t ever done: Make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances?
The potential is there, although the odds of a return increase big time if Chubak returns for his senior season and doesn’t bolt for the pros.
NHL scouts regularly attended Niagara games this season just so they could keep tabs on Chubak, whose six shutouts lead the nation while his .939 save percentage ranks fourth.
Burkholder said he hasn’t discussed the situation with Chubak.
“I didn’t want to distract him and I’m sure he didn’t want to be distracted but that’s part of college hockey,” Burkholder said. “It just seems this time of year every day someone is leaving early. … We’ll probably talk to Carsen after the weekend and see what’s happening.”
Niagara’s immediate concern is bidding its six seniors farewell. Iuorio and Zanette ranked second and third in team scoring, while Jeff Hannan, Dan Weiss, Jason Beattie and C.J. Chartrain were the unsung heroes who did the little things every team needs.
Burkholder almost got a little bit choked up discussing the importance of Hannan, Beattie and Weiss.
“Those three guys are passionate, finish their checks, block shots, all the intangibles of your unsung hero-type players who don’t hit the newspapers, but you’re not a successful team without those guys,” Burkholder said. “They gave their heart and soul to this program and they live their lives properly on and off the ice. All six of them will graduate on time. In fact, Jason Beattie is going to leave in May with his Masters Degree on top of his bachelor’s. Phenomenal group of people and fine young gentlemen in all sense of the word, it’s been an honor to be able to coach those guys.”
Saying good-bye is tough, but the Purple Eagles suited up six freshmen Friday night – including five who played at least 21 games. They received a taste and Burkholder believes Niagara’s well-stocked to make a run at the program’s fifth NCAA bid.
“Obviously we want to continue this,” he said. “Once you experience being in the national spotlight weekly with the poll, I think that sparked our team and our players.”
In Saturday’s West Regional final in Grand Rapids, Jesse Root scored with 4:56 remaining as Yale beat North Dakota, 4-1, to give the Bulldogs their first trip to the Frozen Four. Anthony Day (St. Francis) had two assists for Yale.