LEWISTON – When Dave Burkholder looks at his team, he sees a group that finds a way to win every night.
On Saturday, Niagara found a way without two of its forwards to keep pace in a high-flying game and earn a 4-3 win over defending Atlantic Hockey champion Air Force in front of a sellout crowd of 1,559 at Dwyer Arena.
“We’ve found a different way every game and those are experiences that will pay off in March,” Burkholder said. “Every win feels different.”
This victory came with Niagara needing to make adjustments quickly. With just about nine minutes gone, top line left winger Ryan Murphy was called for a five-minute major, contact to the head, and received an automatic game misconduct.
On the next shift, right winger Issac Kohls left the game with an injury.
“That left us for the game with 10 forwards and that’s not easy to juggle,” Burkholder said. “We have a short bench, but the guys were in great shape and I was really pleased with the back and forth of it and managing the momentum changes.”
And there were plenty of momentum changes in this contest.
Air Force took a 1-0 lead in the first period on a goal by Ryan Timar at 13:38, scoring on the five-minute major penalty.
Midway through the second, Ryan Rashid scored to tie the game for Niagara, but the Falcons regained the lead just over three minutes later on a beautiful play from Stephen Carew to Cole Gunner.
Then came the third. Hugo Turcotte scored 56 seconds into the period to tie the game. Niagara then took its first lead, 3-2, on a goal from Chris Lochner four minutes later.
The Falcons (6-9-4, 4-5-2 AH) tied the game less than a minute later, but Matt Williams found the back of the net at the 11:58 mark to put Niagara ahead for good.
Niagara scored three goals in the third despite being outshot, 15-9, in the period.
“There were momentum shifts all game long today and we took the bad momentum shifts in stride and made the most of our positive shifts,” said defenseman and Eden native Kevin Ryan, who had two assists on the night. “We pulled together in the second and third and buckled down. We decided we were going to win and everyone in the room believed it.”
That level of belief, and ability to adapt, has been a key component of Niagara’s rise to the top of Atlantic Hockey this season. The Purple Eagles, ranked 18th in the latest USCHO.com poll, remain undefeated in league play (10-0-1) and improved to 11-3-4 overall.
The difference for Niagara in Saturday’s win came in making adjustments in the second and third period, planting the available bodies in front of the net to take hits and create opportunities off rebounds.
“In the first period, we didn’t have as many chances, but the shots we had, there were a lot of rebounds at the top of the crease,” Burkholder said. “In the second and third periods we spent a lot of time at the top of the crease and that’s where all our goals came from. We paid the price in the last 40 minutes and it got us the win.”
Niagara plays its next five games on the road, starting Friday with a two-game series at American International College. The Purple Eagles return to Dwyer on Jan. 26 when they host RIT.