Dave Burkholder wasn’t expecting this kind of energy.
After a comical turn of travel snafus, the Niagara Purple Eagles gave a good effort on Friday night in a loss to Air Force in Colorado Springs. Surely Saturday would be the day that travel, altitude and injuries would catch up with his team.
“We made everyone go to the rink in the morning, even though it was an optional skate,” Burkholder said. “If they didn’t skate, they had to go for a walk or stretch their legs. But the energy that they had? I was surprised. I thought Saturday would be the day the travel finally caught up with them. I was truly amazed at the energy level and effort level the entire weekend, especially Saturday.”
Nothing surprises Burkholder about this group anymore.
The Purple Eagles came back to win the next two games of the quarterfinal series and reach Atlantic Hockey’s Final Four for the third straight year, where they will play Robert Morris at 7:35 tonight at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.
Getting to this point was a slightly messy journey, one that needed some addressing head-on during the semester break. Niagara was coming off an NCAA season, earning an at-large bid to the field and entered this season as the coaches’ early favorite to win the league.
That prediction unraveled quickly. Their leading returning scorer, senior Ryan Murphy, was suspended, then left the team after a drunken-driving arrest in the fall. On the ice, the team went 3-11-2 through December. They were just hockey players skating around, playing the game with little cohesion or investment in the outcome.
“Off the at-large bid we felt good about ourselves,” Burkholder said. “We lost six prominent seniors, and we lost our goalie, who was a Hobey Baker finalist, a year early to the pros. That’s a big hole. We had 10 freshmen and two transfers. That’s 12 new faces in the locker room. It took time.
“Then early in the year we had a social mishap losing our leading scorer and that piled on. It took our team time to grow together, to come together. We use words like trust and love. It wasn’t there early. It feels good to be around this team now.”
The players started to buy in and become more invested, not just in the hockey but in each other. They spent more time together. They started to trust each other. The process began to produce results in games.
The team closed out the regular season going 8-7-3 – working themselves into the No. 6 seed in the Atlantic Hockey tournament.
“We really came together as a group after Christmas,” said freshman TJ Sarcona. “We actually had a meeting and said, ‘Hey boys we’re really starting to separate ourselves from each other. That’s not good.’ We banded together. We started hanging out with each other as a team, doing team things and really molded as a unit, and it’s starting to show.
“It’s about trust on and off the ice. … It’s going to bat for one another, really. Just knowing and trusting one another … Going into the corner and knowing that person is going to get the puck.”
Trusting each other has also allowed Niagara to weather injuries.
They have six players who are day-to-day in the lineup, among them junior Isaac Kohls, the team’s leading goal scorer.
Kohls has missed all five Niagara playoff games after suffering an upper-body injury in the regular-season finale against AIC.