By Thomas Baldwin
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — During this century, the Niagara men's hockey team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in every leap year, before falling short in 2012.
Great programs don’t rebuild. They reload, on the fly. But could this be another year of transition for the Purple Eagles?
Niagara placed second in the Atlantic Hockey coaches poll released last week. They open the season this with a non-conference game at 4 p.m. today against Bowling Green at Dwyer Arena.
Niagara sizzled at the end of last season, going 10-2-2 in its last 14 regular season games. Niagara coach Dave Burkholder and the players hope the momentum carries over to the beginning of this year, which opens with eight of 12 games on the road.
“I think we are much more experienced,” Burkholder said. “I think we are finally old, if you will. I look back on last year’s experience, and just to have that winning feeling around here again for a whole semester, and to have everyone back, we just think our upperclassmen are fantastic leaders on and off of the ice. I can’t wait to see where we are this year.”
Twenty two players return this season, so continuity is there.
A concern could be in goal, where Chris Noonan is gone after carrying the Purple Eagles the second half of last season.
Returning are junior Cody Campbell (2-2-3, 2.82 goals against average, .913 save percentage) and sophomore Colby Drost (1-2-1, 2.35 GAA). The wild card could be junior Carsen Chubak, who was solid two seasons ago before being injured. Last season, he played in the first two periods of the season opening loss at Michigan. But, he did not play again all season. He did claim last week he is 100 percent ready to go.
“We sat here a year ago and said we had a four-man competition for the No. 1, and hope come second semester, someone would win that, and Chris did that,” Burkholder said. “It is the same thing this year. I have 1A, B and C. It is an open competition, and my hope is, that someone’s going to take it and run with the No. 1 job.
“We are very confident in the three of them as a group of three.”
Niagara is experienced with seven seniors, including last year’s co-leading scorer, Giancarlo Iuorio. He had 10 goals, 14 assists for 24 points. Also returning is senior Marc Zanette, (11 goals, 22 points), who was tied for second in points.
The Purple Eagles have two juniors who were productive last season. Patrick Divjak had 24 points, Ryan Rashid 21.
What makes this Niagara club so potentially intriguing is the group of youngsters who ascended, collectively, last season. Nine freshman suited up at one time or another.
Two could become stars — sophomores Isaac Kohls and Chris Lochner. Kohls had 22 points, tied for second in scoring. Lochner led Niagara with 13 goals, and at this stage at least, destiny seems to be in concert with this young athlete. His overtime goal in the second game of the Robert Morris series propelled Niagara to the AHA semifinals. Then, he scored the only goal in the heartbreaking loss to RIT.
“We definitely learned a lot as freshman,” Lochner said. “A lot of the older guys were showing us and teaching us a couple of things. This year we are sophomores, we’re expected to raise the bar to a whole new level. And with kids like Isaac, Kevin Albers and Mike Benedict, I think we can do that. I like our sophomore class.”