By Thomas Baldwin
Niagara Gazette — For a while now, Niagara hockey coach Dave Burkholder has steadfastly maintained that Atlantic Hockey belongs to Air Force.
Until someone takes it from them, that is.
And rightfully so, since the Falcons rose to power years ago and have stayed there by winning five of the past six Atlantic Hockey tournaments and capturing the NCAA berth that accompanies it. If what transpired in Colorado Springs this past weekend is any indication, Air Force may still be the team to beat.
The final conference standings say Niagara has been the best team in Atlantic Hockey this season, but the Falcons brought the Purple Eagles down to Earth twice last weekend, and now there is a question to who is the top team in the conference.
“It is behind us, it is certainly not the way you want to end the year,” Burkholder said of last weekend. “It was one of those weekends where, quite frankly, you can say what you want, but they were still playing for league positioning, it was their Senior Night, they had more energy and they executed."
Perhaps Niagara was due for a letdown. Or a wakeup call, depending on how one looks at it.
“It was probably the perfect time for it,” said Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak, who reportedly had the flu last weekend. “We had first place clinched. It was a good time to realize there is a lot of competition in this league. We are not the defending champs, Air Force is. We have to dethrone them, and act like we are in second place right now.”
The Purple Eagles fell out of the USA Today poll. But, only fell one notch — to No. 15 — in the USCHO.COM poll. In the PairWise rankings, they fell from 10th to 13th.
The Purple Eagles are off today but have practice on Friday. They don’t play again until a first-round series at Dwyer Arena on March 15 and 16.
Niagara will face the lowest surviving seed that comes out of this weekend’s opening playoff round. No. 2 Air Force, No. 3 Holy Cross and No. 4 Connecticut also have byes this weekend.
Now the Purple Eagles are looking forward to some rest.
“I think it was a reality check last week, so if anything, we can build off of it for sure,” Chubak said. “We understand that teams are going to come at us hard — it is playoff hockey. Obviously, every game is huge. We have to come out with a different mindset than last weekend, and play every game as it comes.”