By Tim Schmitt
LEWISTON — There’s an air of uncertainty that hangs like fog over the Niagara University men’s hockey team.
After winning 20 games three times in six seasons, the Purple Eagles suffered through the worst season in program history last year, winning just a dozen times in 36 starts. Niagara typically hovered near the top of the standings in College Hockey America, but the league disbanded after last season.
And goaltending — long a strength in a program that’s seen Greg Gardner, Jeff Van Nynatten and Juliano Pagliero work between the Dwyer Arena pipes — is a complete unknown, so much so that Niagara coach Dave Burkholder insisted Thursday he still had no clue who his season-opening goalie would be.
In the midst of that fog, though, emerges fifth-year senior Ryan Annesley.
After a series of injuries, including a second shoulder surgery that knocked him out of the lineup last season, Annesley is returning to quarterback a power-play that often struggled during the CHA’s final go-round.
While he’s glad he was granted a fifth-year of eligibility after playing just seven games last season, Annesley is just as eager to restore order to a once-proud program that has seen myriad changes over the past 12 months.
“Obviously, it’s easier said then done, but give a lot of credit to this freshman class. They’re all coming in ready to work,” Annesley said. “They’ve been winners before, a lot of them, and I think that helps. Everybody knows what it’s like to be on a winning team. It starts with the older guys leading by example on the ice and that’s what we’re hoping to do so far.”
The Purple Eagles host a talented Merrimack squad tonight at Dwyer Arena, one that had its best finish since 1996-97 last year, and returns an emerging star in Stephane Da Costa, who drew plenty of interest from NHL scouts after a 46-point campaign that earned him national rookie of the year honors.
And in Annesley, they have something old in an era of something new, a guy who remembers when Niagara was typically penciled in at or near the top of the preseason coaches polls. The Purple Eagles, despite a slip to an Atlantic Hockey conference that allows fewer scholarships, are picked to finish in a tie for fourth according to this year’s poll.
“There’s a sense of urgency in the locker room, but there’s uncertainty in the locker room. With the league change, we’re really, truly uncertain where we’re going to fit in in the league standings,” Burkholder said. “But all that’s brought a lot of motivation to our staff and in the locker room. We’re excited about hopefully getting back to where we’re use to being and that’s on top of the league and hovering about 20 wins.”
Having a healthy Annesley back should help. In his sophomore season, Annesley scored seven goals and added a dozen assists before slipping to 12 points in his junior year.
Last season, after rebounding from a shoulder surgery over the summer, Annesley played seven games before a hit just before the break knocked him out for good.
“Last year it got to a point where I had to decided whether to get the other shoulder surgery done or keep playing,” he said. “Fortunately, I’d say, in the last game before Christmas against RIT, I got hit pretty hard and it popped again and I knew there was no chance in finishing the season. It kind of worked out for the better though.”
Annesley instantly becomes a pivotal piece of the team’s power-play and will be asked to provide plenty of offense for a roster that’s still green.
“He’s instant offense. He knows he has the green light on the rush. That’s his game. He’s hopefully going to get it and go end to end,” Burkholder said. “Obviously, on our first power-play unit, he’s going to be the quarterback and the setup guy, and he’s going to get it to our goal scorers. As much as it hurt last year, to have him back this year is a big bonus for us.”
For his part, Annesley appreciates the latitude the staff has given him.
“It’s great that the coaches give me the green light, not every coach is like that,” Annesley said. “You have to know when to pick your spots, and if you go, you have to make sure you’re the first or second guy back or you’re in trouble.”
Annesley said he’s had little trouble in the preseason, and although Burkholder insisted the coaching staff would be watching him in the early portion of the season due to conditioning concerns, the senior should see the minutes pile up by season’s end.
“I’m 100 percent excited. And I’m feeling good, the knee, the shoulder, everything,” he said.
“It’s been a long road. I can’t wait for this weekend.”