By Thomas Baldwin
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara hockey team did what it set out to this season when it clinched the Atlantic Hockey regular season championship last weekend.
It's an impressive achievement, but in the big picture, just a small accomplishment. The Purple Eagles want to maintain their national ranking, and in the long run, might have to for a NCAA Tournament bid. This week, they are No. 15 in the USA Today poll and are 16th in the USCHO.com poll.
Niagara also wants to stay highly ranked in the PairWise rankings, which currently has it 10th. The Purple Eagles are 18-3-2 in conference play and 19-6-5 overall.
With those things in mind, they play a home-and-home series this weekend against Mercyhurst. The two clubs skate at 7 tonight in Dwyer Arena before concluding the series Saturday night in Erie, Pa. The Lakers are 12-9-2 in Atlantic Hockey and reside in third place with 26 points. They are only three points out of second place, but also only four points ahead of ninth-place Canisius.
On Tuesday, NU coach Dave Burkholder had a meeting with the Niagara seniors regarding the club’s focus.
“We talked about what is at stake in these last four games with the PairWise rankings, and the potential at-large bid,” said Burkholder, whose club has an 19-game unbeaten streak at home, three shy of the school record. “Obviously, that is huge and has our attention. We have the unbeaten streak at Dwyer Arena that goes back to last year, and we have a chance to go a whole year without losing on home ice, and it is Senior Night.
“If you add those together, we are going to be pretty focused come Friday night when the referees show up.”
Two notable things transpired last weekend. Not exactly news anymore, but perhaps worth a quick closer look.
First, the Purple Eagles got senior forward Giancarlo Iuorio back after he missed 10 games with an apparent upper body injury. He scored three times against Robert Morris on Friday before getting a goal and three assists on Saturday.
Iuorio, who has 16 goals and 11 assists for 27 points in 20 games, skated on Niagara’s third line with Hugo Turcotte and Isaac Kohls on Friday. Before getting hurt, Iuorio skated with Ryan Murphy and Marc Zanette on Niagara’s top line. That trio was back together on Saturday.
“We didn’t know what his conditioning level was until he got into a game,” Burkholder said. “We decided that was the line that had it going before his injury. We made that move for Saturday’s game and it paid off. We are excited about that line, and we don’t anticipate breaking then up the rest of the year.”
lso noteworthy is that goaltender Carsen Chubak did not play Saturday after making 22 consecutive starts since November 2. Burkholder said he sat out with a minor injury. His 1.76 goals against average is sixth in the nation, and he is fourth nationally in save percentage and leads the country with six shutouts.
Instead, Cody Campbell started and surrendered six goals on 27 shots in his first appearance since Jan. 18.
Burkholder said his starter will be back between the pipes tonight.
“He was back at practice yesterday and he looked terrific,” Burkholder said on Wednesday. “We have four games left. Will he play in all four? I’m not sure, but he will be back in there Friday.”