By Brandon Schlager
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — Carsen Chubak and the Niagara University men’s hockey team seem to have the Atlantic Hockey Association down to a science one-third of the way into the season.
The Purple Eagles, led once again by their red-hot junior goalie, improved to 6-0 in AHA play and extended their unbeaten streak to eight games after a 2-1 win over Western New York rival Canisius Friday night at Buffalo State College.
Chubak made 31 saves, keeping the Golden Griffins’ speedy forwards on ice all game long with the exception of one hiccup in the second period. Late in the third, a series of key saves with the Purple Eagles killing off a rash of penalties proved to be the difference.
“He kept us in it,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. “He’s been doing that all season long. It’s a national story. You’ve got to have good goaltending, especially on the road. … He played great tonight from start to finish.”
Canisius (2-6-3, 1-2-1 AHA) out-shot the Purple Eagles, 32-23, and controlled the tempo for the majority of the game. When Niagara got into some penalty trouble late in the third period, Chubak was there to bail the team out.
The Purple Eagles spent a little more time in the penalty box than they would have liked, accumulating 10 minutes on five trips. That’s not how they drew it up, but Burkholder said they’ll gladly take it.
“We just wanted to play 5-on-5 and get on the bus,” he said. “I thought our guys showed a lot of perseverance shorthanded. They didn’t have many good looks, but when they did, Carsen was there.”
Chubak has allowed just two goals in five games this month, as the Purple Eagles are off to a perfect 5-0 start to November. Through 12 games, Chubak’s eye-popping numbers are turning heads as his .966 save percentage and 1.08 goals against average are both tops in the nation.
“After not playing for so long, you want to make the most of everything,” Chubak said. “We only play 35 games, so it’s not too hard to stay focused. That’s only 35 games to prove yourself. I’m bringing 100 percent every night and that’s just really what it is.”
Junior Ryan Murphy opened the game’s scoring at the 14:51 mark of the first period after he took a pass from Giancarlo Luorio, stepped in front of the net and rang a wrister off the crossbar for his fifth goal of the season.
The Purple Eagles’ second goal came late in the second period after the puck found the skate of Mike Benedict during a crease-side scrum and trickled its way across the goalline. Benedict’s fifth goal of the season proved to be the game-winner after neither team could capitalize in the third.
“I just kinda went hard to the net, went wide, and it went in off my skate,” Benedict said. “He [Burkholder] calls it the men’s club. I’m just happy to be out there to have the opportunity to score those goals. … They told me just go to the net and get the tough ones. That’s what I try to do.”
Burkholder said Benedict has been a real early-season asset now that he’s carved out his niche from inside the ‘men’s club.’
“I think all his goals this season have gone a collective 30 inches,” Burkholder said of the sophomore. “He plays at the top of the crease. At this level and the next, you’ve got to play well inside the men’s club at the top of the crease and he gets rewarded for it.”
The Battle of the Bridge held true to its chippy nature, as the pair of teams renewed their rivalry for another season. The Purple Eagles have now won their last three games against Canisius.
“Whenever we beat them it’s huge, so it was really big tonight,” Chubak said. “We enjoy coming here and beating them. … It’s a game we really look forward to. It’s marked on our calendar, so it’s good to get out of here with a win.”
With Holy Cross idle, the Purple Eagles move into sole possession of the AHA’s top spot for at least one night. They head into a two-week holiday break after their game this evening against another AHA opponent, Robert Morris, with a ton of national buzz surrounding the team.
Win or lose, Burkholder said they’re more than pleased with how this season’s played out so far, but are still trying to temper the buzz a bit.
“It’s a little early,” he said. “We thought at the start of the season, most of the hype we were getting was on last year’s team. I told the guys, ‘Hey, we need to get people to start talking about this year’s team.' And they’ve done that.
“To be where we are in our league at this point in the year is unreal because that’s Atlantic hockey, and we’ll take every point we can.”