When Kevin Ryan works hockey camps, it hits him.

Once upon a time, he was that little kid, eager to learn from the Niagara University players and enthralled with their success.

Now, he’s the Niagara hockey player teaching younger kids the game. It’s a full-circle kind of thing for Ryan, a native of Eden.

“I grew up watching Niagara hockey and going to Niagara University hockey camps,” Ryan said. “It’s been really cool to be able to put on the sweater of the team I watched play growing up. It’s been a blessing to be able to be part of the tradition. I notice it more when I go out and coach younger kids. You’re like, I was that kid. Oh wow, he’s really little. I was that little.”

Ryan isn’t so little anymore. The 6-2, 200-pound defenseman is part of the backbone of a team hungry to make a playoff run.

The Atlantic Hockey playoffs begin tonight for Niagara (11-18-5) as it hosts American International College (10-23-1) at 7 in Dwyer Arena. It’s a best-of-three series with the winners advancing to the best-of-three quarterfinal round.

Canisius (12-19-3) also hosts its first-round series as Sacred Heart (12-22-0) comes to the Buffalo State Ice Arena beginning at 7 tonight.

While the playoffs begin today, the Purple Eagles have been in playoff mode since January.

The defending regular-season champions, Niagara had the usual high expectations for this season despite losing a number of key components to graduation and professional contracts. Niagara stumbled through the first half of the season going 3-11-2 before Christmas.

They suffered through inconsistency at the start of the second semester, but found their groove against rival Canisius, getting a tie and win in their home-and-home weekend. Since Feb. 1, the Purple Eagles have gone 4-3-2 and have played a better overall game with more energy and more consistency.

“It’s been playoffs for us since pretty much right after Christmas,” Ryan said. “We decided around the Canisius weekend that we were going to start playoffs and since then we’ve been playing really well. We haven’t been getting all the bounces in every game, but you know what, it will happen. Now it’s playoffs. We’ll get the bounces, right?”

The turnaround is in part attitude, part underclassmen learning what it means to play for Niagara and part pride at upholding a program’s legacy.

“It’s hard to put a finger on it, what changed to cause our change in play, but everyone’s buying in, and we’re playing Niagara hockey,” Ryan said. “We’re hard on the forecheck, getting pucks out, making simple plays, being creative when we can in the offensive zone, being simple in the D-zone, really just taking care of the puck in all areas of the ice.

“We feel like when we’re going and we outwork the other team, as long as we don’t give any turnovers up, we’re going to win.”

Ryan has been a steadying force on the blue line for Niagara as it often dressed three freshman defenders.

“As a coach when he’s hopping over the boards, it’s almost like you take a deep breath and go OK. We’re fine. K-Ry is out there,” Burkholder said. “He’s been that steady for us. ... His career is going to go down as one of the best on defense in the history of our program, and I don’t say that lightly. I know that’s a bold statement but he’s been that good for us.”