It had been a back and forth battle all night long.
And then one gutsy play on special teams sealed a key win for Niagara.
With the scored tied and Robert Morris on the power play, TJ Sarcona and Stephen Pietrobon teamed up to score the game-winning shorthanded goal with 2:25 left in the game. Add an empty-netter and the Purple Eagles earned a 5-3 win over Robert Morris on Thursday night in front of 707 at Dwyer Arena.
Sarcona made the play at the defensive blue line and turned up the ice for a partial breakaway. He was in close when he got the shot off on Robert Morris goaltender Terry Shafer, who made the initial save but was down and out of position when he gave up the rebound. Pietrobon was there to put in the loose puck.
It was an aggressive penalty kill for the Purple Eagles and a bit risky in a 3-3 game with less than three minutes to play.
But that’s how the Purple Eagles roll.
“Coach allows us to be aggressive and lets us be free to do what we want,” Sarcona said. “Yeah, it’s risky, but it’s a tie game and everyone’s trying to score to win the hockey game.”
The poke check from Sarcona got the puck away from the Colonials. He followed that up with a rush and Pietrobon just followed the leader.
“He’s gotten a few shorthanded opportunities now, so when he gets the puck I know he’s going to make the play,” Pietrobon said. “I wanted to follow up and was able to get the rebound and put it in the net.”
Sarcona has one shorthanded goal on the year, but for Niagara it was its sixth.
“We’re pretty aggressive in our penalty kill,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We let our guys go full ice. We’re overly aggressive. … It’s been a work in progress.”
The season has been a work in progress for Niagara. After a difficult first semester, the Purple Eagles (10-15-4 overall, 10-8-4 in Atlantic Hockey) are now 5-1-1 in their last seven games and made up two points on Robert Morris (11-7-4), which entered the weekend four points ahead of Niagara in the standings.
“Things weren’t going our way, and we lacked confidence early in the season,” Sarcona said. “But now we’re keeping our heads up, our legs moving. We keep on working and now things are turning our way.”
Niagara took a 1-0 lead just 56 seconds into the game on a blast by Sarcona.
The teams then traded goals throughout the second as momentum was a precarious thing.
Robert Morris tied the game at 3:57 of the second on a goal by Brandon Denham.
Niagara regained the lead at 7:48 when Brock Edwards scored in front for a 2-1 advantage.
But then the Colonials started to pick up their pace of play.
A goal by Colin South at 12:09 tied the game and then the Colonials took a 3-2 lead just about four minutes later.
The Colonials had just finished a power play and faced another aggressive penalty kill from Niagara. But Robert Morris took advantage of a defensive slip from the Purple Eagles, one of several that allowed Robert Morris to slip behind the Niagara defense all game long.
This time, it resulted in a goal from Greg Gibson and the first lead of the game for Robert Morris.
Niagara tied the game with 7:44 left in the third when a blueline blast from Kevin Ryan made its way through traffic and into the back of the net. Ryan Rashid added the empty netter with 40 seconds left.
Adrian Ignagni finished with 27 saves as Niagara held a 39-30 shots advantage.
The teams will meet again at Robert Morris at 7 p.m. Saturday.