For Niagara fans, it’s too bad the Purple Eagles can’t play all their games against Air Force.
Niagara scored four times in the first 13:18 and posted its third victory over the Falcons this season, cruising to a 6-1 win before 1,282 fans at the Cadet Ice Arena on Friday.
The victory, Niagara’s second in its last 10 games, kept the Purple Eagles within three points of league-leader Alabama-Huntsville, which defeated Findlay earlier in the evening, 5-2. Niagara is now 6-13-2 and 3-2-2 in the CHA, while the Falcons, winless in their last four contests, dropped to 8-12-1 overall, 2-6-1 in conference play.
“Collectively, this was our best 60 minutes of hockey all season,” said Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder. “What we went through last weekend (a pair of decisive losses versus Ferris State), it brought us down to Earth.”
Niagara wasted no time in getting on the board, scoring just 70 seconds after the opening faceoff. Bernie Sigrist passed the puck from inside the blue line to an open Hannu Karru in front of the net, who redirected the puck past Air Force netminder Mike Polidor.
Less than five minutes later, Joe Tallari doubled the Purple Eagles’ lead. The conference’s leading scorer stuffed a wraparound attempt between Polidor’s right pad and the post for his 17th goal of the season.
Niagara broke the game open with a pair of goals 28 seconds apart later in the period. Chris Welch and Chris Sebastian both tallied their fourth goals of the season, as Welch scored on a wrister and Sebastian put home a breakaway attempt.
That would be it for Polidor, who was pulled after stopping just five of nine shots.
Polidor’s replacement, David Goodley, fared only slightly better, as he allowed two goals in the second period. Sigrist scored the first goal off Goodley, as Doug Conley’s shot hit the post and caromed to Sigrist. For Conley, it was his first career point.
Karru increased the lead to 6-0 with his second goal of the game and Niagara’s only power-play tally of the evening. Sigrist made a beautiful pass to Karru from the corner, and Karru flicked the puck over Goodley’s shoulder.
Untimely penalties hurt Air Force’s bid for a comeback. Twice the Falcons were whistled for penalties while on the power play, including once for having too many men on the ice.
The Purple Eagles, and freshman Jeff VanNynnatten, were denied their first shutout of the season with just 2:27 remaining in the game. Scott Zwiers converted from in close on the power play, with defenseman Brian Reaney earning his 50th career assist on the goal.
“Jeff played very well for us and kept us in the game,” said Burkholder of VanNynnatten, who finished with 31 saves. “He’s a very competitive kid with a lot of raw talent.”
Tempers flared with under a minute remaining, as several fights broke out in front of Niagara’s bench. The final 26 seconds were played three-on-three, and five major penalties were called in the last 1:06 of play.
“I told (Air Force) Coach (Frank) Serratore after the game, those fights happened because our league now has an automatic bid,” said Burkholder. “The CHA is a very competitive league now.”