BY BRANDON SCHLAGER
Niagara Gazette — Since the calendar year turned almost 12 months ago, the Niagara men’s hockey team has enjoyed success at Dwyer Arena.
The Purple Eagles are 13-2-2 on their own ice since Jan. 1 of last season. In fact, taking care of business at home has never really been a huge issue for a Dave Burkholder coached squad. In 2006-07, Niagara went 12-0-2 at Dwyer. That year, the Purple Eagles achieved their best ranking in program history, coming in as high as No. 16.
With the release of the latest USCHO.com polls earlier this week, Niagara is once again ranked 16th nationally, its highest since 2007, in large part due to its 6-0-1 home ice record this season.
When the Purple Eagles welcome Atlantic Hockey Association rival RIT (2-8-3, 1-5-2 AHA) to Dwyer Arena tonight for a 7 p.m. puck drop, they’ll look to continue that winning trend in their final home game of 2012.
The Purple Eagles (10-2-3, 9-0 AHA) are on an 11-game unbeaten streak (9-0-2) and are undefeated in conference play this season.
The Tigers have never won a game at Dwyer Arena.
“They’re a team that travels really well,” said Burkholder, whose roots in hockey trace back to his playing days as an all-American goaltender at RIT. “They’ll give us a tough time like they always do. There’s not a lot of love between the two programs.”
Niagara will face RIT for the first time since the Tigers ended its season with a 2-1 overtime defeat during last year’s AHA semifinals. The win was the first time RIT defeated the Purple Eagles since becoming a Division I team in 2006.
Historically, Niagara still has a stranglehold on the rivalry. But the Tigers have begun to close the gap. For the first time, the Purple Eagles will take the ice against their rivals with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“I think we’ve really built a nice rivalry over the years,” Burkholder said. “We’ve had our success against them, but we lost the most imp one last season, and that was playoff game. All our returning players certainly remember how that one felt.”
Though RIT has struggled since the last time the two teams met, graduating a number of key seniors, Burkholder said the Purple Eagles will have a tough time slowing down a Tigers’ blueline that accounts for 25 percent of the team’s scoring. Senior defenseman Chris Saracino leads the team with 14 points (4+10), with junior partner Greg Noyes tied for second with 13 (5+8).
On special teams, it’ll be a contest of who blinks first. RIT’s power play enters the game ranked sixth in the nation, executing at a 23.7 percent clip in large part due to its blueline play. Niagara will counter with a PK unit killing off 90.5 percent of all penalties, good for seventh in Division 1.
“I’m really concerned about how well their defensemen are jumping into the offense,” Burkholder said. “We really have to be aware of their D when they join the rush. It’ll be a big task for our guys to keep their D-men off the scoresheet.”
Burkholder said he’ll look toward the Purple Eagles’ top line of Giancarlo Iuorio, Marc Zanette and Ryan Murphy to balance out the scoring. The trio have accounted for 12 points over the last two games. Iuorio quietly leads the nation with 12 goals.
“He’s been scoring a lot of big goals for us, and that’s what he’s supposed to do,” Burkholder said of the senior Iuorio. “For a while it like we had lines 1a, 1b and 1c. Now it’s we clearly have a top line, and they’ve earned that title. All three guys can make plays. It’s really meshed and come together this last month and a half. I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon.”