By Tim Schmitt
NIAGARA FALLS —
Rick Gotkin shook his head a bit in disbelief when asked. The Mercyhurst men’s hockey coach was facing a question about the addition of two teams to an already crowded Atlantic Hockey standing board soon after his Lakers had just dropped a 5-3 decision to Niagara — the first time the two teams had ever met in league play.
Although Gotkin’s team was picked second in the Atlantic Hockey preseason coaches poll (the Purple Eagles were chosen in a tie for fourth), he knew he’d just witnessed a team to be reckoned with.
“Niagara is going to be a great team in our league. Anybody who thinks they’re not just doesn’t understand,” Gotkin said. “When we brought RIT and Air Force, we did it to make our league better. And with bringing Robert Morris and Niagara in, I’m telling you — they are absolutely going to make our league better.”
Indeed, both programs haven’t needed long to get acclimated to their new circuit after leaving the now-defunct College Hockey America.
Robert Morris is second with 16 points, just a single point behind conference-leader and 2009 Frozen Four participant RIT, atop the Atlantic Hockey standings.
And Niagara, coming off its worst season in program history, has fared even better, even if they currently stand in a third-place tie with Canisius with 14 points. The Purple Eagles, who won just a dozen times in 36 games during the CHA swan song, have a pair of games in hand on Robert Morris and have four games in hand on the rival Golden Griffins at the midseason break.
Niagara also had a 10-6-2 overall record, and already owns the upper hand on RIT, knocking off the Tigers by a 4-1 count on Nov. 19.
By all accounts, it’s been exactly the kind of reply Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was hoping for after such a tumultuous campaign.
“We couldn’t be much happier,” Burkholder said after a recent win over UConn. “After what we went through, this is what we had hoped to see as a response.”
Leading the way for Niagara through the first semester was the senior duo of Paul Zanette and Bryan Haczyk, which has provided nearly 40 percent of the Purple Eagles’ 66 goals thus far. Zanette led the country in goals through most of the season’s first half, and finished the first term with 16, just a single marker behind North Dakota’s Matt Frattin for the national lead. Zanette is also leading the country in shorthanded goals (3) and is tied for 10th in power play goals with five.
Haczyk, who might be the league’s fastest player, has 22 points, including 10 goals, while Giancarlo Iuorio, who was paired with the two for the final few games before the break, leads Niagara with 14 assists.
A pair of freshmen, Scott Arnold and Ryan Rashid, have made early splashes with 12 and seven goals, respectively, while Patrick Divjak has proven to be a nifty playmaker in his first season on Monteagle Ridge and could be a power-play setup man for years to come.
The defense has been led by senior Ryan Annesley, who has returned from a shoulder injury to post 14 points in 18 games, and C.J. Chartrain, who has stepped his physical play and already has more points (11) than he did in his freshman season (10).
So while the offense seems firmly entrenched for the season semester, the big question that remains is in net, where a shuffle has continued from last season.
Freshman Carsen Chubak was playing well, but his campaign was derailed by an ACL injury. Sophomore Andrew Hare, who had been highly touted out of juniors, is no longer on the team’s roster and was announced as a mid-season addition at Division III Oswego.
That means the duties will fall on the shoulders of Chris Noonan, an affable junior who has had a rollercoaster ride in the nets, and late add Cody Campbell, who had formerly committed to powerhouse New Hampshire.
Will the duo be able to carry the load in the second half? The good news for Niagara is that after a two-game set at Holy Cross that starts Jan. 7, the Eagles have four games against the league’s two cellar dwellers — American and Sacred Heart.