Niagara Gazette — A year ago at this time, the Niagara hockey team and the Rochester Institute of Technology were involved in a tight race in the Atlantic Hockey standings. No so much this year.
That race could still develop between the two clubs this season, but RIT has a long ways to go to get even with Niagara. The Purple Eagles will try to keep the comfortable distance between themselves and the Tigers this weekend, when the teams play a home-and-home series tonight at RIT and Saturday in Dwyer Arena. Both games start at 7:05 p.m.
“These are huge games for us,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We have a lot of common players that played with each other, and the games just got spirited from the start of the series. It seems every year the energy and motivation is elevated."
Niagara is 13-1-1 in conference play with 27 points, and has been dominating so far in Atlantic Hockey, holding a nine-point lead over two teams tied for second, Mercyhurst and Holy Cross. The Purple Eagles are 14-4-1 overall and are ranked No. 17 nationally. They stumbled in a 3-0 loss at Bowling Green in their first game after the break, but have victories in four of their last five games.
For the Tigers, it has been a different story. They eliminated the Purple Eagles in last season’s Atlantic Tournament, but so far this year have been just so-so, going 6-6-3 in conference play and 8-10-4 overall.
However, the Tigers are 6-1-2 in their last nine games and have won three of their last four.
It could be considered a case of good news, bad news for the Tigers. They only have 15 points and are in eighth place at the bottom of a conference logjam. The good news is they are only three points out of second place. One good weekend and they could be right back in the thick of things at the top of the conference.
“They had a huge road weekend at Army, which is a difficult atmosphere to play in against a difficult team,” Burkholder said. “They certainly have the ship going in the right direction and have been playing great the whole second semester. I think we will see a different team than what their stats or standings said during the first semester.
“They have a lot of weapons and a very good team. We are preparing for a good team.”
Niagara will again be without leading scorer Giancarlo Iuorio, who has missed the last two weekends with an upper body injury. Burkholder said Iuorio is not skating yet and is a couple of weeks away from returning.
Niagara junior Patrick Divjak has replaced Iuorio on a line with Ryan Murphy and Marc Zanette. Divjak led the Purple Eagles with 18 points last season and tied for the team lead in points with 24. This season, he has not been as productive with four goals and 10 points through 22 games. His 33 penalty minutes are third-highest on the team.
“His points are probably not where they thought they would be,” Burkholder said of Divjak. “When he is working hard, he is one of our best two-way players. He is a complete player.”