By Kyle DeNormand and Ryan Sullivan
The Niagara University Purple Eagles men's hockey team got off to a rough start to its 2016-17 season. They were 0-5-2 going into their two game road trip to Penn State on Nov. 3-4. The team embarked on the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the Pegula Ice Arena hoping luck would start to turn in their favor.
Hopes were high that they would do just that. Back on Nov. 6, 2015, the Purple Eagles tied the Nittany Lions 1-1 at the Dwyer Arena. Joe O'Brien made his debut in net as a Purple Eagle that game and saved 39 out of 40 shots.
The Purple Eagles were plagued with a very front-loaded schedule this season. All of their toughest matchups were in the first 10 games. Penn State was no exception, with a 6-1-1 record going into their double-header against Niagara. The Purple Eagles suffered a 10-2 loss to Ohio State University on Oct. 28, and a 6-2 loss against Ohio State the next night. Both games were played at Dwyer Arena, Niagara's home.
Both teams faced off at 7:07 p.m. in front of a crowd of 5,839 fans at the Pegula Ice Arena. Penn State's Zach Saar opened the scoring 2 minutes and 35 seconds into the first period. Four minutes after that, Andrew Sturtz made it a 2-0 game in favor of the Nittany Lions. Niagara came out fairly early in the second period with Kris Spriggs scoring 5 minutes and 42 seconds in to bring the Purple Eagles within one goal.
Penn State was peppering Niagara's goaltender Guillaume Therien with shots, but he was keeping his team in the game. Late in the second period, Penn States' Denis Smirnov scored two quick goals: one 17 minutes and 53 seconds into the second, and another with only nine seconds remaining in the period to put his team up 4-1.
The Nittany Lions scored once in the third period. Dylan Richard scored at 14 minutes and 56 seconds into the period to put them up 5-1, and that's how the game would end.
Penn State outshot Niagara 56 to 25. Denis Smirnov was the best player for Penn State, with 2 goals and an assist. Guillaume Therien was the best player for Niagara, making 51 saves.
"They're in the top 10 for a reason," NUcoach David Burkholder explained. "We were down 2-1 going into the second period. Thought we skated well with them, unfortunately we imploded in the third."
The next game between the two teams was the next night, again starting at 7:07 p.m. at the Pegula Ice Arena, but this time in front of a crowd of 6,061. O'Brien got the start in net this time.
Niagara got off to a good start, with a power-play goal from Johnny Curran 16 minutes and 56 seconds into the game. The Purple Eagles thought they would have a lead going back into the dressing room, but Andrew Sturtz of Penn State tied it up with a power-play goal with only 44 seconds remaining in the opening period.
Niagara was mostly playing the second period in their end again, with many shots being taken against them. Vince Pedrie of Penn State scored the only goal of the period 9 minutes and 47 seconds in to make it 2-1.
The third period was even worse for the Purple Eagles, as the Nittany Lions scored three goals. Andrew Sturtz got his second of the game, 32 seconds into the period. Zach Saar scored at 4 minutes and 10 seconds, and David Goodwin scored the final goal of the game with just under 6 minutes remaining in the game to make it a 5-1 final.
The shots were 51-21 in favor of Penn State. O'Brien set a career-high for saves with 46.
"It was the same situation as last game, where we trailed by one goal late in the second period and couldn't make a push. I thought we came out with good spirit, grit, and a ton of effort, and that will help us in the long run," Burkholder said. "That was an unbelievable series for us. ... We started hockey 21 years ago here at Niagara for weekends like this ... for our school to be able to play a huge Division 1 team like Penn State. Great name association. ... So, for us to be able to take our team, and Niagara University, to their campus, it was a huge weekend."
The Purple Eagles were 0-7-2 heading back home. Despite the losses against Penn State and other out-of-conference teams, they showed a lot of potential, especially when tying a very tough Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute team 3-3 on Oct. 21. The next game they were looking forward to was on Nov. 15 against Mercyhurst University (2-5-0) at the Dwyer Arena.
Dwyer Arena was very sparse, only having a crowd of 683 for the game between Niagara and Mercyhurst. The game started at 7:05 p.m. and the Purple Eagles got exactly what they needed with a quick goal from Vinny Muto 3 minutes and 34 seconds into the first period. Assistant captain Derian Plouffe scored at 8 minutes and 19 seconds in, and Tyler Hayes added a short-handed goal with just over two minutes left to give Niagara a 3-0 lead going into the second period.
The second period did not start out so well for Niagara. Mercyhurst's Jack Riley scored a power-play goal 2 minutes in. Michael Verboom scored at 8 minutes and 7 seconds, and Stephen Hrehoriak scored a minute later to tie the game up at 3-3. Niagara's TJ Sarcona lead the charge after that for the Purple Eagles, scoring just 45 seconds later to make it 4-3. Sarcona scored another goal on the power-play at 15 minutes and 57 seconds to make it 5-3 over the Lakers.
The third period remained largely the same. Mercyhurst made a push at the end with Kyle Dutra scoring with 1 minute and 24 seconds remaining in the game. The Purple Eagles made a final defensive push and prevailed to win their first game of the season over Mercyhurst 5-4.
The shots were 38-35 in favor of Mercyhurst. Therien made 34 saves in the win.
The Purple Eagles improved to 1-7-2 and laid down the groundwork for turning the season around.
"That was a tough six-game segment, which we are through. And now we are down to 25 league games left, which we are excited to see. You hope those six non-conference games test you for league play," Burkholder said.