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Heading into Friday night’s games, I had a feeling the potential best weekend series would come from the series between Niagara and American International. Any time there are two teams needing to avoid falling behind their league brethren at a critical early juncture, they begin to produce high energy action as both identify opportunities to jump start their respective motors.

That’s exactly what happened inside Dwyer Arena. On Friday, a see-saw, overtime thriller turned in favor of Niagara.

In the first period, the Yellow Jackets struck first blood behind Jackson Dudley’s third goal of the season, before the Purple Eagles tied the game 90 seconds later on the first of the year by Stephen Pietrobon.

In the second period, Niagara broke the 1-1 stalemate with two goals, including one on the power play, to take a 3-1 lead with eight minutes left. But after Sam Rennaker’s goal gave the Purple Eagles their two-goal lead, Dudley again scored, pulling AIC within one. In the third, Austin Orszulak scored to tie things up.

Niagara scored at the 6:26 mark to retake a 4-3 lead, only to see AIC come back once again with just over nine minutes remaining in the game. In overtime, Matt Chiarantano notched his first of the season with 18 seconds left, lifting the hosts to their first game of the season with a 5-4 victory.

Then came Saturday’s encore.

The teams went into the first intermission scoreless despite Niagara outshooting AIC, 16-1. That helped boost the Yellow Jackets to two power play goals, then a third on even strength circumstances. Down 3-0, it was Niagara’s turn to play comeback, scoring one before the end of the period and adding a second late in the third.

It would fall short, however, as AIC’s Chris Porter added an empty net goal, resulting in a 4-2 result and a weekend split.

In total, Niagara and AIC combined for 15 goals, 143 shots on goal, 34 penalty minutes, and seven power plays, delivering on all promises from Friday of exciting hockey.

Getting (Army) stronger

Heading into the weekend, both Chris and I reasoned that Army West Point would, at some point, take at least one point from Robert Morris. After seeing the Black Knights shut out Connecticut on the road, we both figured that the Colonials were further along but were also traveling on the road to face a Black Knight team now growing the seeds of progress.

Army West Point proved us prophetic in a 4-4 tie at Tate Rink on Friday. After giving up a goal just past the halfway point of the first period, the Black Knights scored twice in two minutes to go up 2-1. They gave up a shorthanded goal with one second remaining to wind up 2-2 into the first intermission, but they scored 46 seconds into the second period on the power play to retake a 3-2 lead.

It didn’t take long for RMU to tie things up at 3-3, but the Black Knights, undaunted, scored 51 seconds after the tying strike to retake a one-goal lead. Though Brandon Denham’s second goal of the night tied the game early in the third, the cadets held on for a point despite being outshot, 14-11, from the third period through overtime.

RMU returned to form on Saturday in scoring three first period goals, but there’s something to be said for Army’s two additional power play goals in a 5-2 defeat. There could be another team to put on the radar as the season hits the end of its first half.

The need For rivalries

As mentioned during our weekly picks column, last weekend provided the only regular season meeting between Mercyhurst and Canisius, two programs with a long history dating back to both schools’ tenure in ECAC West.

During Canisius’ 4-3 win on Friday, referees called 30 penalties, 20 of which came on a goal with 48 seconds left in the second period by Mercyhurst’s Kane Elliot. Elliot scored on a delayed penalty call — a goal that was eventually held up after review to put the Lakers on the board after trailing 3-0 to that point.

The post play pushing and shoving devolved into as much of a donnybrook as can push the collegiate envelope, with 10 players receiving both two minute minors for roughing and 10 minute misconducts – a total of 120 minutes. For good measure, the delayed penalty — a slash by Ryan Schmelzer — also was called.

With emotions riding high, Mercyhurst clawed back to tie the game with under seven minutes left, only to watch Mike Sabatini score the game winner for the Golden Griffins in a 4-3 decision. It’s worth noting Mercyhurst, to their merit, evened the weekend with a 4-1 victory on Saturday.

The weekend underscored the need to protect the truly great rivalries in Atlantic Hockey. With the current scheduling format, a number of rivalries will only see two games instead of four. Two of those involve Canisius, who will not have return matchups with Mercyhurst or Niagara (with whom they battle for the Canal Cup in the all sports-wide Battle of the Bridge).

Scheduling is an imperfect science, and I know there’s a benefit of the doubt to be given because of its challenges. I just feel there has to be a way to identify and protect certain matchups within the league. With them, there are brilliant opportunities to help generate the emotional feel that can only come with rivalry games.