By Tim Schmitt
LEWISTON — Members of the Niagara University men’s hockey team insisted prior to Saturday’s season opener that they didn’t want to start the 2010-11 campaign like the last — when they let a school from a high-profile conference off the hook, finishing in a tie after holding a two-goal lead.
Unfortunately, with a new lineup, and now as members of a new conference, the Purple Eagles turned the same old trick, racing out to a 3-1 lead before settling for a 4-4 tie with Merrimack of Hockey East in the non-league opener for both at Dwyer Arena on Saturday.
Aside from a short stretch in the second period in which the visitors scored three times, the Purple Eagles did a solid job against a talented Merrimack roster that’s expected to have the best season in school history. A year ago, Niagara led Colgate 3-1 before falling into a 4-4 tie, and the Purple Eagles didn’t manage a win until their 11th start.
But Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said he was pleased with the team’s effort, especially considering the fact that Niagara had five freshmen and eight sophomores in the lineup. Ryan Rashid, one of those freshman, got the tying goal early in the third after the Purple Eagles had frittered away the lead.
“I really liked our game. Other than that three-minute span in the second period ... start to finish I thought we did our gameplan,” Burkholder said. “We wanted to win the dump game, forecheck on their D and I thought we did that. I thought we outworked them and outhit them for most of the game.”
Senior Ryan Annesley led the offense, scoring early in the first period to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, then adding an assist later on the goal that gave NU a 3-1 lead.
Merrimack was led by star sophomore Stephane Da Costa, who scored a goal and added an assist.
“I did like our resiliency. When you play David Burkholder-coached team, you know you’re going to get a really physical, hard-nosed, old-fashioned type of hockey, which is great because we like to play like that as well,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said.
The Purple Eagles got on the board early as senior Ryan Annesley made a nifty move to deke out Merrimack goalie Joe Cannata and put the hosts up 1-0 just 133 seconds into the contest.
“I was just trying to get the nerves out,” Annesley said. “I was just really excited to get back into the lineup.”
Merrimack’s top gun and prospective NHLer Costa showed why he’s expected to be a hot commodity next spring when he scored midway through the first on a blast from the right wing. Da Costa’s power-play goal was assisted on by Karl Stollery and Joe Cannata.
In the second period, the Purple Eagles scored twice as David Ross banged in a rebound just 31 seconds in, then, soon after Niagara killed off a 5-on-3, Paul Zanette gave the Eagles a 3-1 edge. Zanette came wide off the boards on a 2-on-1 and was looking to pass, but when he was left alone, the senior fired a high shot that beat Cannata on his stick side.
After that, however, the visitors dominated the positional play for the rest of the second and were finally rewarded when Jeff Velleca scored when he batted a loose puck out of the air on an assist from Da Costa. Less than two minute later John Heffernan tied it on a nice play when he scooped up a loose rebound and shoveled it past an outstretched Chris Noonan.
Brandon Brodhag gave Merrimack the lead just 64 seconds later when he flipped a short backhand over Noonan’s pads.
“For a young team, obviously blowing a 3-1 lead at home is not something you expect or want to go through ... I didn’t even think about a timeout,” Burkholder said. “It’s just one or two breakdowns and they were opportunistic. And they’re a Hockey East playoff team from last season who didn’t lose too often.”
Niagara’s Rashid tied it in first 64 seconds of the third period, then outshot Merrimack 13-9 in the third period, but couldn’t get the go-ahead goal as Warriors’ goalie Joe Cannata shut the door. Niagara even had a power-play opportunity in the extra session, but couldn’t convert.
“It starts with Joe Cannata. He made some great saves on the penalty kill,” Dennehy said. “He knows he’s only got to make one save and that’s the game-winning or game-tying save, and he’s usually done a pretty good job of that.”
“We had some great chances,” Burkholder added. “I thought it was going to take a greasy rebound goal to win it, but we didn’t get it done. Overall, it was a really good effort. And I thought it was a really good college hockey game either way.”