by MICHAEL MROZIAK
Niagara Gazette — During a short-ice drill near the end of practice at Dwyer Arena Wednesday morning, Niagara University’s starting goaltender Carsen Chubak was caught down on his back, his body contorted and his catching glove held up in a desperate attempt to stop the puck from passing him.
It worked. Much to the awe and delight of teammates also taking part in the drill or watching from the bench as they awaited their turn.
Among them came the call from an unidentified player, “he really wants to win this.”
Whether he was referring to that specific drill or looking at the bigger picture, Chubak indeed wants to win. So do all his Purple Eagle teammates, who upon the end of practice boarded a bus and rolled out to Grand Rapids, Mich., where they’ll face the University of North Dakota on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Hockey Tournament.
It’s a much cherished shot at redemption after falling short in the Atlantic Hockey Association’s tournament.
“We lost in the semi-final, which was very disappointing, but to a team with a lot of heart in Canisius,” said Chubak. “We’re going to play with that same intensity against North Dakota.”
The Purple Eagles were able to shake off the heartache of falling last week to the Golden Griffins in Rochester once they received confirmation of their at-large place in college hockey’s version of “the dance.” They haven’t dwelled much on that loss, but rather looked ahead to Friday’s game. That’s because from this point forward every “next game” could be their last game.
“I’m a senior and never been to the tournament, so it was very nice to know that I could suit up at least one more time with these guys and battle with them,” said forward Giancarlo Iuorio, who said the team needs to stick to its game plan, establish a good forecheck against the Fighting Sioux and play with confidence.
“We just know that we’ve got to put everything on the line. There’s no tomorrow. One-game eliminations in college hockey are tough games. We know they’re going to bring their best game so we’re going to do the same.”
For the team’s freshmen it’s a special start to their NCAA careers. One of them, forward Rocky Gruttadauria, wasn’t even supposed to be here this season. Late last summer, Gruttadauria was training with the Buffalo Junior Sabres, for whom he was preparing to play in his final year of Junior “A” hockey. Instead, he was invited to join the Purple Eagles, who were in need of immediate replacements on the roster.
Now here he was, helping load a bus he would board just moments later. Like his elder teammates, he is fully appreciating the moment and remembering some valuable lessons from his first collegiate tournament.
“We went into that tournament (the Atlantic Hockey tournament) being the first team overall and expecting to win it,” said Gruttadauria. “We realized that nothing was going to be given to us. We have to work hard for everything. We’ve got to take that into this tournament and go as far as we can.”
Head coach David Burkholder said it’s been a fun week leading up the tournament. He hasn’t had to do much to keep the players focused. They’ve done a good job of that on their own.
“I measure our success as a staff and my success as a coach (by) how hard you can get your team to work Monday through Thursday,” he said. “This year’s been exceptional.
“We can get two hours to three hours a day with them and then after that you leave it up to your upperclassmen and your captains,” said Burkholder. “Our senior class is, man oh man, what a special group of people.”
If there are any negatives heading into Friday, it’s the expected absence of one of those seniors, co-captain Dan Weiss.
“He’s doubtful,” said Burkholder about the injured defenseman. “You play your whole career hoping for this opportunity to play for a national championship. We’re uncertain now but it doesn’t look good.”Follow Gazette Sports Editor Michael Mroziak on Twitter at @MrozGazette