Niagara won the race to the holidays.
Sure, the Purples Eagles do have one more game to play before Christmas, when they entertain RIT next Wednesday. But no matter what happens in that one, they have established themselves solidly as the team to beat in the second half.
Niagara has ripped through the Atlantic Hockey portion of its schedule – through pretty much all portions of its schedule, actually – to the top of the league.
The Purple Eagles won their seventh and eighth straight games when they dispatched Sacred Heart, 5-3 and 5-2, last weekend to extend their best-in-the-land unbeaten streak to 11 games at 9-0-2.
The Friday night win was the 200th at Niagara for coach Dave Burkholder.
“It’s just a number,” said Burkholder after the game. “I haven’t really thought about it. It’s all about the players and the streak they’re on, still being undefeated in Atlantic Hockey. The milestone says that that I’ve had some unbelievable assistant coaches and some great players have come through the program. I’m very lucky in both regards.”
Last weekend’s series highlighted the teams at the top and bottom of the league standings and the Pioneers probably deserved better: they held a lead on Niagara in the second period each game, but were unable to hold the Purple Eagles off.
That put Sacred Heart in good company. No one has been able to hold off the potent Niagara blend of offense, led by senior forward Giancarlo Iuorio, and defense, backstopped by junior goalie Carsen Chubak who has been putting up huge numbers.
Iuorio already has a career best 12 goals and is at 12-8-20 overall. His junior linemate, Ryan Murphy, is not far back at 8-10-18. Junior defenseman Kevin Ryan has contributed 12 assists.
Chubak, who played only two periods last year because he was injured at the start of the season and then senior Chris Noonan took off and ran with the job, has been immense.
He has a .962 save percentage and a goals-against average of 1.62 to go with his 10-1-3 record.
Niagara has won its last 12 games at home and Burkholder said he stressed the importance of playing well at home on Saturday night after Sacred Heart grabbed a 2-0 lead.
“We have to protect our home ice at Dwyer and the guys needed to be reminded of that after the first period,” Burkholder said. “Teams can’t come in here and outwork us like that, and I thought we took the play to them in the last 40 minutes which was the difference.”
They will need to after the break and later down the stretch. Ten of Niagara’s last 16 league games are on the road.
Player of the Week
Tony Capobianco, jr. G, Canisius
Capobianco stopped 81 of the 82 shots he faced to lead the Golden Griffins to an impressive sweep on the road against Connecticut, 3-0 and 3-1. He had 36 saves for his first shutout of the season on Friday and came back with 45 the next day. Capobianco has some of the best numbers in the country with a .942 save percentage (fifth-best in the nation) and 1.83 goals against average (tenth).
Games of the week
Air Force at Bentley, Friday and Saturday
Bentley looks to bounce back from losses to Army, 3-2, at home last Thursday and at Dartmouth, 5-2, on Saturday. Air Force came from behind to beat RIT, 3-2 in overtime, on Sunday to break a four-game losing streak. Bentley took three points in a two-game set between the teams in Colorado last season.
1. Niagara (10-2-3, 9-0-0) . . . The Purple Eagles ran their best-in-the-nation unbeaten streak to 11 at 9-0-2 with a pair of wins against Sacred Heart, 5-3 and 5-2. Friday night’s triumph was No. 200 behind the bench for coach Dave Burkholder. Niagara is off until a Dec. 12 home game against RIT.
2. Holy Cross (7-4-2, 6-3-2) . . . After starting the season 7-2-0, Holy Cross has gone 0-2-2 in its last four games. The Crusaders play at home against Division I newcomer Penn State on Friday and Saturday. The Nittany Lions are 6-5-0 and have been busy against Atlantic Hockey teams. Penn State has split games with AIC and Air Force and has wins over RIT, Army and Sacred Heart.
3. Mercyhurst (5-5-1, 5-2-0) . . . It’s finally here. The Lakers, after opening with 11 straight games on the road, play their home opener on Friday against AIC and host the Yellow Jackets again the next night. Senior Grant Blakey scored in the third period to cap off a big comeback -- the Lakers trailed 3-0 early -- for a 5-4 win at Air Force on Friday.
4. Army (5-6-1, 5-2-1) . . . The Black Knights moved up a couple of spots in the standings with a pair of wins. They knocked off Bentley, 3-2, on Thursday night and then beat AIC, 3-2, on an emotional night at West Point on Saturday. Army honored Major Tom Kennedy and welcomed his family to Tate Rink that night. A former Black Knight player and the team’s Officer Representative the last four years, Kennedy was killed in action in Afghanistan in August.
5. Canisius (5-6-4, 4-2-2) . . . The Griffs are riding their first three-game win streak since Nov. 2009, thanks to a sweep of UConn last weekend. Sophomore defenseman Logan Roe scored his first career goal to open the scoring on Friday. Sophomore Cody Freeman contributed his first of the year to get Saturday’s scoring started.
6. Robert Morris (5-4-1, 4-3-1) . . . Senior goalie Eric Levine had 33 stops on Friday in a 4-3 win and 33 the next day in a 1-1 tie as the Colonials went on the road and took three points from Holy Cross. Levine and the Colonials killed off all 13 power plays they faced during the weekend. They have a home and home series with Ohio State this weekend.
7. Bentley (6-7-0, 5-4-0) . . . The Falcons averaged more than four goals a game going into last weekend and managed half that in losses to Army, 3-2 at home, and at Dartmouth, 5-2. They also own one of the best power plays in the nation, but were 0-for-9 on it for the weekend. Bentley led Dartmouth in the second period, but could not hold on.
8. Air Force (4-7-3, 3-4-1) . . . The Falcons climbed out of a 2-0 hole to top RIT, 3-2 in overtime, at home on Sunday to squeeze two points out of the weekend. They lost to Mercyhurst, 5-4, on Friday. Senior Stephen Carew had the game-winner in OT. Air Force, at Bentley for games on Friday and Saturday, swept the series the last time in.
9. UConn (4-7-1, 3-6-0) . . . Just when it looked like the Huskies were starting to turn the corner, they stumbled in a pair at home against Canisius, losing 3-0 and 3-1. The Huskies had swept Air Force the week before. They are averaging just 1.58 goals a game. UConn plays Army at home on Saturday and then is off until the UConn Hockey Classic on Dec. 29 and 30.
10. RIT (2-8-3, 1-5-2) . . . The Tigers owned a 2-0 lead early in the second period at Air Force on goals by freshman Andy Miller and sophomore Brad Reid, but ended up losing 3-2 in overtime. They have gone a team-record six games without a win at 0-4-2. It was the Tigers first OT loss since Oct. 24, 2009 and they had gone 9-0-17 in overtime since then. Sacred Heart is at RIT for two this weekend.
11. AIC (3-7-3, 0-5-3) . . .The Yellow Jackets fell at Army, 3-2, on Saturday night and are 0-3-2 in their last five games. Senior forward Adam Pleskach leads AIC in scoring at 4-8-12 and is closing in the century mark for his career at 48-46-94. AIC is at Mercyhurst for games on Friday and Saturday and then breaks for Christmas.
12. Sacred Heart (0-12-2, 0-9-2) . . . The Pioneers gave Niagara a run and led in the second period in both games, but eventually fell twice, 5-3 and 5-2. Sophomore Brian Sheehan, 6-6-12, and senior Eric Delong, 4-8-12, share the team’s scoring lead. Delong is at 37-61-98 for his career. The Pioneers are at RIT on Friday and Saturday.
Allen Lessels can be reached at email@example.com.