BY MICHAEL MROZIAK firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — Niagara University’s hockey team returns to game action for the first time in nearly two weeks tonight, when they face off against Big Ten opponent Ohio State at 7 p.m. (Radio: WLVL 1340 AM)
It’s the first of two games they’ll play against the Buckeyes, who are 4-4 so far this season in non-conference games.
The Niagara bus rolled into Columbus late Thursday afternoon, carrying a roster that was rested and with some key players back. Among them is defenseman Kevin Albers, who was injured during his first shift in Niagara’s 6-4 win over Canisius on Oct. 12.
“He plays close to 30 minutes a game when he’s healthy so we’re really happy to have him on the bus right now,” said NU head coach Dave Burkholder by telephone. “Dan Kolenda, who’s a big strong power forward, is going to get one of the games this weekend so it’s nice to have him back as well.
“We’re all systems go in regards to manpower and excited to see the guys play and compete after a week off.”
Their last game action came in the final weekend of October, when they traveled to Colorado to play No. 17 Denver University followed by Air Force. The Purple Eagles lost both games by scores of 5-1 and 7-4, respectively, dropping their record to 1-4-1 overall but remaining 1-1-1 in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Niagara and Ohio State have faced each other only twice before in hockey. Niagara won the inaugural matchup, 6-3, in 1998 under then-coach Blaise MacDonald. The Buckeyes avenged the loss with a 4-1 win in 2000, also under MacDonald.
Facing Ohio State for his first time, Burkholder suggests that the challenge facing his Purple Eagles will be a big, physical defense.
“They’re so big on defense,” he said. “Their penalty kill, their numbers aren’t up there but neither are ours, but they’re really big on the back end. They have some really huge defensemen. They box out, so we’re going to have to get a puck to the net and win those battles at the top of the crease, in what we refer to as ‘the men’s club.’ It’s not an easy thing to do against a big D core like Ohio State.”
When asked about his young squad, which includes ten rookies, the coach praised them for being important contributors early in their careers, including goaltenders Adrian Ignagni and Jackson Teichroeb.
“I think our freshmen class have all chipped in and have contributed in different ways,” he said. “As far as our two goalies are concerned, I would say they’ve had an up-and-down start to their careers but that’s to be expected as freshman goaltenders at this level. They’ve both been stars of the game and they’ve both had games where they probably thought they could have been a little better.”
This weekend’s games will bring a five-game road trip to an end. While it sounds grueling, Burkholder points to the down time which allowed them to return home for a while before heading back on the road.
“I think with the week off, it broke it up for us, which really helped us with the guys in regards to rest and studies,” he said. “I think it’s so early in the year that the travel has not become a factor yet. Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re going to be excited next week to get back to the Dwyer to play Army but first things first, we’re excited about all the challenges that Ohio State’s going to present for us and the opportunity that waits for us in the next two days.”
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In other team news, senior defenseman Kevin Ryan was nominated for the 2014 Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes an NCAA hockey Division I senior that excels in academics, athletics, community service and character.
“He’s a class individual,” Burkholder said of the Eden, NY resident. “He’s done everything that we’ve asked since he came on campus at Niagara. He is an unbelievable student and always gives back. Whenever there’s a community service project, he’s at the front of the line. I can’t say enough good things about Kevin.”
Kyle Gibbons of Canisius is another candidate among the 20 nominees who will be cut down to 10 finalists later in the season.
Follow Niagara Gazette Sports Editor Michael Mroziak on Twitter at @MrozGazette.