By Thomas Baldwin
Niagara Gazette — It's not hard to pick out reasons for Niagara’s hockey success this season: productive offensive players, depth everywhere and an outstanding goaltender.
Purple Eagles fans are abundantly aware of the players who score the points — Giancarlo Iuorio, Ryan Murphy, Ryan Rashid, Marc Zanette, etc. And they know all about Carsen Chubak’s work in net.
But somewhat overlooked has been the work of Niagara’s defensemen. Guys like Dan Weiss, Jason Beattie, Kevin Albers, Matt Williams, C.J. Chartrain and Kevin Ryan.
No wonder the Purple Eagles are ranked No. 13 and 14 in the two national polls this week. They have only surrendered 74 goals in 32 games — 10 in a lopsided loss to Colgate way back on Oct. 9.
“They have been doing outstanding, obviously,” said Chubak of his defensemen. “They block a ton of shots. It cuts down my shots by about five a game. We have a lot of bumps and bruises, but I can’t complain, I guess.
“We play well in the other team’s end as well, so you can also thank the forwards. It is a whole team effort, of course. And whenever we take a penalty, obviously the guys have to sell out, block shots, and get the puck 200 feet down.”
While Niagara’s defensemen have been very steady, so has Chubak. When a team gets those two factors going its way, it will not allow many goals.
“We are having a great year, but it all starts with our goaltender,” Albers said. “He has got us out of a lot of situations where a two-on-one or odd man situation. We have an older group of defensemen, we have seniors, one junior. It is nice to have older guys lead by example, like Weiss and Beattie every night.”
A Niagara goal has been to limit the shots Chubak sees, and it has worked so far.
“Every night we try to not allow more than 20 shots, that’s kind of our goal,” Albers said. “But we know even if we were to allow a few shots, we know that Chubs has our back. In this late in the season, we would like to have the workload less for Chubs, and have him rested and ready to go at playoff time when we need him more. Every night, we like to make his workload low and not make it more stressful for him.”
The conference champion Purple Eagles play at Air Force tonight and tomorrow night, with both games starting at 9 p.m. The Falcons currently are in second place in the Atlantic Hockey standings, and have already qualified for a first-round bye.
Air Force is 13-7-5 in conference play and 15-11-7 overall. Niagara, 20-3-2 and 21-6-5, beat the Falcons 4-3 on Jan. 5 at Dwyer Arena.
“It is obviously a very tough place to play, and with the team travel involved,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, whose club left Dwyer Arena at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning to board a 7 a.m. flight. “They were picked as the team to beat this year. And until someone knocks them out of the playoffs, it is their league. Obviously it will be a very tough weekend for us.”
Air Force has won five of the past six Atlantic playoff tournaments and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it.
“We are excited to get on the road and test ourselves against a really good team,” Burkholder said. “We want to go into the playoffs with a lot of momentum.”