By Thomas Baldwin
The Purple Eagles had a precious game in hand on Thursday night — and they took full advantage — winning when they had to.
Paul Zanette had a goal and assist while goaltender Chris Noonan made 29 saves to propel the Niagara University men’s hockey team to a critical 3-0 victory over Canisius at the Buffalo State College Sports Complex.
Defenseman Sam Goodwin and Bryan Haczyk also scored for the Purple Eagles, who now lead the all-time series 14-6-1. Canisius and Niagara continue their spirited rivalry on Saturday night in Dwyer Arena. Faceoff is 7 pm.
The Purple Eagles (14-9-1 Atlantic Hockey Association) climbed into a second-place tie with Robert Morris in the West pod with 29 points. The top two finishers in each pod get a first-round bye.
“It’s huge,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, whose club improved to 17-11-3 overall after winning for just the second time in seven games. “We are tied for second place with three games to go. That’s all you can ask for as a coach. We think that first round bye is really important, and we took care of business here.”
Niagara broke open a close game with two goals in the second period.
Goodwin gave Niagara a 1-0 lead at 9:06 of the second period when he skated in on a 2-on-1 while cleverly using Scott Arnold as a decoy and blasted a shot past Canisius goaltender Dan Morrison.
The Purple Eagles upped the lead to 2-0 just under seven minutes later when Zanette tipped in Ryan Rashid’s slapshot from the point past Morrison.
“I just went to the net, had my stick on the ice,” Zanette said. “I wasn’t expecting it to come to me. He found me and made a great play and I just kind of touched it in.”
After Canisius failed to scored on a 2-man advantage which lasted 1:21 early in the third period, Haczyk scored when he took a precision-laced Zanette pass from behind the net and poked it in to give the Purple Eagles a 3-0 lead.
Haczyk’s goal was his 27th, which leads the nation.
“It is a play we work on,” Zanette said. “Off the faceoff, we try to get it back to the point and move it around. I went and got it and found the nation’s leading goal scorer right in front point blank, and he is not going to miss that.”
Noonan, who came on in relief to get a win at Air Force on Saturday, was steady as a rock in recording his first career shutout.
“They had a couple of Grade A’s, and he did what he had to do,” Burkholder said of Noonan. “He made the big stops for us when we needed it. It is not how many (saves) ... but when.”
Niagara went 1-for-5 on the power play while Canisius - who has not scored in 180 minutes, 14 seconds - was blanked in seven attempts.
“Our power play was 0-for 7 with seven shots, and that can change the feel on the bench,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “On the 5-on-3, we were trying to get some confidence. That was a game-changing moment, and we didn’t capitalize on the opportunity.”