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Niagara started this game with only 17 skaters.
After an ejection, the Purple Eagles were down to 16.
It didn’t matter.
A decimated Niagara club showed resiliency, industriousness – and some solid goaltending for a change – in grinding out a 3-1 Atlantic Hockey victory over Bentley on Saturday afternoon in Dwyer Arena.
“There is no better feeling in the locker room … the guys did not feel sorry for themselves,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “We called a couple of guys out on video today, and they responded. To sit there exhausted, and to get two points on the weekend, we probably deserved better. But I am really proud of those guys for what they did today.”
Niagara, which has eight skaters out of action – four for the rest of the season – started the game even shorter on personnel when TJ Sarcona was scratched. They lost another skater when Nick Farmer was ejected after a ruckus in the second period.
The Falcons, who won 6-3 on Friday night, headed on a long bus ride home after settling for a split.
“I actually thought we played a better 60 minutes tonight than we did last night,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “Last night we executed on our scoring chances, tonight we didn’t. In the second period, we had five two-on-ones that we did not covert. You have to score goals. Your top players have to be your top players. I thought the effort was there, but we missed some backdoor goals, goals that we usually score.”
The shorthanded Purple Eagles, residing in the Atlantic basement, could have easily capitulated in this one, but instead showed ferocious determination, especially early in the third period.
But earlier, at 13:10 of the second period, Johnny Curran got things rolling when he sped down the right side, took Kris Spriggs’ pass in the slot and blasted the puck over Jayson Argue’s glove, giving the Purple Eagles a 1-0 lead.
Then Niagara upped its lead when defenseman Vinny Muto’s shot from a sharp angle beat Argue to give the Purple Eagles a 2-0 advantage at 3:31. It was the second goal of the season for the Niagara Falls, N.Y. native.
“I pinched down, and I lost the puck. And it went to their forward who was covering me on the point,” Muto said of the eventual game-winner. “I just stepped in to and it went short side. The goalie was off the post a little bit. I just beat him short side low.”
Just more than two minutes later Kris Spriggs scored a power-play goal at 5:39 when he whistled a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle to put Niagara in command at 3-0.
Jake Ahlgren later scored Bentley’s goal on a one-timer from close range to make it 3-1.
Another big reason Niagara won was the work of goaltender Joe O’Brien, who recorded 37 saves.
“He was great, he is a gamer,” said Burkholder, a former RIT goaltender. “He gave us a really good start at Holy Cross, and he deserved another start this weekend. Everything was solid. His rebound control was outstanding. He got us whistles when we needed whistles.
“We were under a lot of pressure. They took it to us in the third period, but we weathered the storm. Our defense was great, and Joey was exceptional.”
For Bentley, it could be an interesting rest of the season. Five freshmen and six sophomores suited up Saturday. Soderquist thinks his club might be in for a ride with ascensions, downward spirals and perhaps several bumps.
“I feel really confident about our team,” he said. “I think this league is going to be night to night. I don’t think there is any team that is going to run away with it. I like our chances in the second half. We just have to be more consistent.”
Notes: Sarcona got hurt in Friday night’s game in the first period, missed the second but returned for the third. Burkholder said he hopes to have Sarcona back for the American International series next weekend. … Ahlgren’s goal was his first this season. … O’Brien’s victory was his first of the season in six appearances (four starts). … Burkholder confirmed Tyler Hayes, Derian Plouffe, Ryan Kuhn and Tanner Lomsnes will miss the rest of the season.
Atlantic Hockey roundup
Canisius 2, at Air Force 2
Heath Cameron tied the score 2:38 into the third period to give the Golden Griffins three of four points in the road series against the league’s first-place team. The Falcons, who again fashioned a huge shots on goal edge (48-27), again struggled to solve Canisius goaltender Charles Williams, who had 46 saves one night after making 38. Evan Feno gave Air Force a lead late in the first period, and Jordan Himley’s team-high 12th goal made it 2-0 at 6:18 of the second. Dylan McLaughlin scored five minutes later for Canisius to cut the lead in half. Shane Starrett made 25 saves for the Falcons one night after being pulled in the first period.
Army West Point 4, at Mercyhurst 1
The Black Knights scored early and then late in the final period to pull away from the Lakers. With the score tied at one headed into the third period, Trevor Fidler gave Army a 2-1 lead just 59 seconds into the final frame. Dominic Franco then scored shorthanded just over nine minutes later before Brendan Soucie iced the victory late. Todd Zach tied the score for Mercyhurst in the second after Dalton MacAfee had put Army on the board midway through the first. Parker Gahagen made 30 saves for the Black Knights.
AIC 5, RIT 3
Patrik Demel had two goals and an assist to power the host Yellow Jackets. Martin Mellberg had a goal and two assists for AIC, which won despite getting outshot 41-28. Ryan Kruper had a goal and an assist for the Tigers.
Holy Cross 2, at Sacred Heart 2
Tommy Muratore scored early in the third period to give the host Crusaders a tie with Sacred Heart. TJ Moore scored the other Holy Cross goal, while Justin Danforth and Mitch Nylen scored for Sacred Heart.