Niagara Gazette —
Nearly two weeks after a pair of blowout losses at the hands of perennial favorite Air Force in their final two regular season games, the Niagara Purple Eagles will have a chance to prove that their regular season Atlantic Hockey title wasn't a fluke when they host RIT for a three-game quarterfinal series at Dwyer Arena, starting at 7:05 tonight.
After being picked to finish second to Air Force in the conference preseason polls, NU won its first nine conference games en route to a 20-5-2 AHA record (21-8-5 overall). The team finished 42 points, seven more than Air Force, to capture the regular season title.
Still, those last two games — during which NU was outscored 11-3 — raised doubt about the Purple Eagles' spot atop the conference.
"Atlantic Hockey goes through Air Force," NU coach Dave Burkholder said of the defending conference champions, "but that certainly wasn't the Niagara team that showed up all year. It was a weekend where we didn't have a lot of fight and didn't have a lot of energy."
The top-seeded Purple Eagles have extra motivation against eighth-seeded RIT (15-16-5, 11-12-4), which knocked NU out of the postseason in last season's conference tournament.
Also on NU's side is the location of the games. RIT is winless in its history at Dwyer (0-6-4), and the Purple Eagles are riding a 20-game unbeaten streak at home, the second-longest in program history.
That doesn't mean NU won't face a challenge against the high-flying Tigers. In three games this season, the Purple Eagles only earned one win against RIT, finishing with record of 1-0-2.
"On paper, their forwards top to bottom are probably the best in the league, and on top of that, they have a couple top notch defensemen that contribute," Burkholder said. "They have one of best power plays in the nation, so we have to be really disciplined."
The Tigers boast a dynamic offense that scored the fourth-most goals in conference play this season, led by senior defenseman Chris Saracino, who finished with a team-leading 32 points. They had six players finish the season with over 25 points, compared to three for NU.
The teams return to Dwyer at 7:05 p.m. Saturday for Game Two. If they split, a decisive third game will be played at 7:05 p.m. Sunday, also at Dwyer. The winner of the series will advance to the single-elimination round next weekend in Rochester's Blue Cross Arena.
The games will be broadcast live on WJJL 1440 AM and PurpleEagles.comFollow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.