Niagara Gazette — It has been an intense few weeks for the Niagara hockey team.
First came the Rochester Institute of Technology, a major conference rival for the Purple Eagles. Then, after a series with Bentley, came the two ferocious battles against another bitter rival in Canisius.
Now, this weekend brings the Purple Eagles (18-5-5, 17-2-2 Atlantic Hockey Association) a home and home series with Robert Morris, which — like Niagara — is a holdover from the old College Hockey America conference. The clubs had a tempestuous relationship a few years ago when they would often have to play six or seven times per season.
There is definitely a history between these two programs, on and off of the ice.
The Purple Eagles and the Colonials meet at 7:05 tonight in Dwyer Arena before wrapping up the series in Moon Township, Pa. on Saturday night. Niagara enters the weekend at No. 14 in the USA Today poll and 15th in the USCHO.com poll.
In the only meeting this season, the Purple Eagles won 3-0 on Nov. 17.
“The games are still pretty special,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “Especially for the coaches, because my two assistants (Tim Madsen and Pat Oliveto) played against Robert Morris during the peak of the rivalry during the rough, tough hockey.”
Adding to the rivalry is former Niagara player Nate Handrahan, who left the Purple Eagles to become an assistant with Robert Morris, and two Niagara players who left to play for the Colonials.
“It was an instant rivalry when they started their program,” Burkholder said. “We still think of the CHA when we play Robert Morris.”
This could be a watershed weekend for the Purple Eagles, who could clinch the conference title. They lead second-place Mercyhurst by 10 points and third-place Air Force by 11 points with each club having only six games left. Niagara’s magic number is two points to clinch a tie and three to win the title outright.
“I think our guys are in the moment,” Burkholder said. “It was a goal at the beginning of the season to get a regular season banner. Number one is to keep our home streak alive Friday and take our chances on the road on Saturday.”
Niagara is riding an 18-game unbeaten streak at Dwyer.
Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak, who leads in the nation with six shutouts, thinks it would be a case of the sooner the better for Niagara's title hopes.
“Especially with all of the injuries we have had, that definitely give some guys a break,” he said. “And maybe get a couple of guys in there who have not seen the ice that often. To do it this weekend obviously would be ideal.”
Mercyhurst hosts RIT this weekend while Air Force is home against Canisius.
The Colonials, who are 10-10-1 in conference play and 15-11-2 overall, have been on a tumultuous ride lately. They were hammered 8-1 by Mercyhurst on Feb. 5, then came back to defeat RIT 3-0 last Friday before losing to the Tigers 4-3 the next night.
“When they are going full throttle, they are unbelievable,” Burkholder said. “When you look at what they have done non-conference wise. They are the most successful team in our conference in their non-league games.”
The Colonials own impressive victories over top-ranked Quinnipiac and fourth-ranked Miami (Ohio.)
“I look at our game against them earlier in the season, and they are really fast,” Burkholder said. “They had the puck an awful lot. We scored on our chances, and they didn’t. That was the difference in the game.”