The last time that the Purple Eagles of Niagara University braved Lynah Rink, they performed admirably. The visitors gave the home-standing Red nearly more than it could handle as Cornell used the game as an appropriate and trying tune-up before Red Hot Hockey III. Niagara dominated considerable amounts of the play during the game. In short, the Atlantic Hockey program made Cornell play its game. The Eagles proved to Cornell, a season before it was known to the college hockey world, that Niagara was a program with which to be reckoned. Niagara outshot Cornell at Lynah Rink in November 2011. The difference between victory and defeat that evening was Andy Iles who delivered a flawless game that made Cornell's lone third-period goal make the difference. The Purple Eagles would end the season with a 17-11-9 record. This total included a tie against Frozen Four-bound Union. Niagara ended the season in the Atlantic Hockey Championship Semifinal to RIT.
Niagara had high hopes entering the season. The Purple Eagles were the deserving recipient of the first at-large bid for Atlantic Hockey. When they arrived in the national tournament, they did not disappoint. Niagara held perennially potent national contender North Dakota to two goals in the 2013 NCAA West Regional Semifinal. If there was a single star of that game, or that season, for the Purple Eagles, it was Carsen Chubak. Chubak nonetheless forewent his senior season and left the Niagara program. This early departure has left a tumultuous wake for Dave Burkholder's program.
Can the Purple Eagles replace Chubak? Had Chubak returned, he would have undoubtedly been in the conversation as a Hobey Baker candidate. But, his decision to leave renders these conversations counterfactual and makes what many assumed would be a second season of Niagara's dominance a period of readjustment for the Purple Eagles. Goaltending has been the downfall of Niagara this season.
Departed is a netminder with a 0.939 save percentage and a 1.91 goals-against average. What has risen in its place is a goaltending tandem that has combined for a 0.882 save percentage and a 3.81 goals-against average. The tandem of
Adrian Ignagni and Jackson Teichroeb has not been able to keep the Purple Eagles in the win column often this season. Niagara has defeated only Canisius, in a series split, and Army, in a series sweep.
The goaltending woes of Niagara are exacerbated by modest offensive production. Niagara averages nearly 0.5 fewer goals per game than it did last season when it went to the national tournament. This lower offensive explosiveness coupled with a 6.1% decrease in netminding efficiency has proven fatal. Five of Niagara's games have been decided by a two-goal margin. The remainder have been decided by much more. Only two of those contests have been in the Purple Eagles's favor.
The strength of the swarming Purple Eagles is that they provide a consistent attack. There is no line or set of players that produces the vast majority of goal-scoring opportunities for the Eagles. No one player has scored more than one game-winning tally. No skater that has played all 12 games for Niagara has scored fewer than four points. Additionally, no player has scored more than eight.
Niagara represents a sound Atlantic Hockey program. A program that will not dominate and dazzle you with one line of awe-inspiring talent, but one that is equally likely to strike on any shift and that opponents must respect throughout the entire course of a contest. Even Niagara's netminder Teichroeb has joined in on the balanced scoring with an assist on the season.
Isaac Kohls stood out in Niagara's contest against Michigan last weekend. He generated several scoring opportunities. Patrick Divjak also showed an ability to grapple with the talents of the Wolverines at fearsome Yost Ice Arena. Mirroring the breadth of scoring talent on Niagara in these fact is that neither player ranks as the Purple Eagles's most prolific scoring contributors. Those honors belong to Mike Conderman, Ryan Rashid, and Hugo Turcotte. Each has contributed eight points while the latter two have contributed four goals each.
What to Expect:
A team that is far better than its record. Niagara may look like a pushover on paper, but any spectator who thinks that Cornell will win easily has forgotten the lesson of November 2011. Niagara is a team enduring growing pains after the most successful season in its program's history. It will right the course. It most likely will do so with a great win. What Cornell must do is ensure that it does not give the Purple Eagles the win that they need.
Niagara is motivated after a 6-0 loss at Michigan. Anyone who watched the game realizes that Dave Burkholder's comment that the game was much more even than the score was exactly correct. Niagara generated sporadic pressure deep in Michigan's zone. The Purple Eagles set up several key plays that just missed the mark of conversion. After the first period, Niagara was outshooting the Wolverines on their home ice surface.
Niagara is a team that will come to fight and has the skill to make the Big Red pay. Cornell has been relying on the power play to fuel its offense. Half of Cornell's offense has been driven by its power-play unit. If the contest with Niagara remains close late, Cornell may need to rely on even-strength grit to down the Purple Eagles. Less than one-fifth of the goals that Niagara has allowed have been on its penalty kill.
It is worth noting that Niagara is the least high-scoring opponent that Cornell has faced to date. However, consider this: Niagara is tied currently with its 2013 NCAA West Regional Semifinal opponent, North Dakota. This should give Cornell pause. Niagara is a team that cannot be overlooked, as Coach Schafer and his team have stated.
Niagara is a solid team that is waiting to find balance. A staggering loss to Michigan may provide the impulse to find that equilibrium. Cornell should be ready for that possibility. The game will be waged in all phases. Cornell's power play should be more than sufficient to overcome Niagara's struggling penalty kill that ranks in the bottom five in the nation. However, Cornell should battle to find the back of the net whenever it can because if the Big Red fails to respect any line of the Purple Eagles, the visitors in purple could quickly make this contest a game and in quick fashion could take the advantage.
This game will be a hard-fought contest for both sides. Niagara is looking for a win desperately and winning at Lynah Rink could provide the type of emotional euphoria that Dave Burkholder knows can lift his team into a more successful season in Atlantic Hockey. Cornell needs to show that it is dedicated to the task at hand and the opponent atop the white board, and not looking ahead, because if they look beyond the purple and white, the Big Red will risk departing Lynah Rink in defeat.
Cornell and Niagara are two of ten college hockey programs in New York State. The Purple Eagles of Niagara University are the youngest member of the fraternity that is the close-knit hockey community of the state of college hockey. Niagara began sponsoring college hockey at the NCAA Division I level in the second year of Coach Schafer's tenure, the 1996-97 season. The Purple Eagles made the leap to Division I after sponsoring a club hockey team previously. Despite the youth of Niagara's program, the Big Red of Cornell has met them 13 times on the ice. Cornell appeared on Niagara's schedule in the newcomer's second season at the Division I level. It took only two meetings before Niagara defeated Cornell in the third all-time contest between the programs. The disparity of history between the young Niagara program and the historic Cornell program is absent in the series. True, Cornell owns an overwhelming winning record of 11-2-0, but the games themselves have been astonishingly even. Eight of the 13 meetings have been decided by one goal.