By Tim Schmitt
LEWISTON — Niagara men’s hockey coach Dave Burkholder said prior to the season that finding a goaltender to replace Juliano Pagliero was his team’s top priority, and that without a No. 1 netminder the Purple Eagles might be hardpressed to get victories against quality opponents.
After eight games, he’s realizing exactly how prophetic that statement was.
Niagara started strong, got an early lead on No. 19 UMass at Dwyer Arena, then watched a pair of quickies help the visiting Minutemen gain their footing. Burkholder gave junior goalie Adam Avramenko a quick hook, but the hosts never regained the lead and dropped a 4-2 decision to fall to 0-7-1 on the season.
Egor Mironov scored to give Niagara the lead under seven minutes in the opening period, and although the Purple Eagles got outshot by a 10-4 margin in the opening period, they took some momentum into a first intermission that honored the 1999-2000 team that secured the team’s only NCAA Tournament victory.
After the break, though, UMass (6-1-0) came flying out of the gate and scored two goals in a 50-second stretch. Michael Marcou’s marker from Casey Wellman and James Marcou was followed by Will Ortiz’s goal as he blasted one by Avramenko to give the visitors the edge.
That’s when Burkholder turned to sophomore Chris Noonan, who did an admirable job stepping in and handling a steady diet of work.
Burkholder, a former goalie at RIT, had a simple explanation for the change.
“Two very very bad goals,” he said. “That team’s fragile enough. We’re out there working, hitting and playing hard and they let two slappers go that need to be stopped. We couldn’t wait to see if he was going to snap out of it.”
Ryan Olidis evened things at 2-2 later in the period after a booming hit by senior Egor Mironov. After a hit behind the net by Mironov, Chris Moran dumped a pass out front and Olidis beat a diving Dan Meyers to tie it up.
In the third, though, the Minutemen got a goal from Wellman with just over five minutes to play, and then James Marcou tipped another loose puck Noonan to ice the game.
“We came out with a lot of energy, but as the game wore on they played like a ranked team and their speed was overwhelming at times,” Burkholder said. “We’re a very fast team when we’re forechecking, but they’re fast when they’ve got the puck. They’re so quick on their transition game.
“We were in chase mode for sure.”
One positive for the Purple Eagles was the emergence of Olidis, Mironov and Moran as a top line. The trio accounted for all three goals in the two games against UMass — Niagara lost 4-1 on Friday at the Mullins Center — and gave the Minutemen fits at times. Mironov, especially, made his presence felt in the offensive zone, and his hit that led to Olidis’ goal was a mirror image of a play from Friday night.
“We need that out of Egor. That’s his job. He’s a power forward. Yeah, he’s got the big shot, but if he’s not finishing his checks, he’s not doing his job,” Burkholder said. “We put them together this weekend. We’ll go as they go. We got energy off their shifts.”
“That Niagara team is a whole lot better than their record,” said UMass coach Don Cahoon, who grew up close to Buffalo Bills coach Dick Jauron. “That teams skates too well ... they’re going to win some games.’
Still, it’s been a tough non-conference slate for Niagara, which opens its final season in College Hockey America on Friday against Robert Morris.
“It’s frustrating, but we have been playing strong games,” Mironov said. “A bad bounce and those teams that are ranked, they’re going to capitalize on them. That’s just what happens.”
“We’ve made progress every game,” Burkholder added. “But (Sunday), I’m really not happy with the overall details. Turnovers. We were sloppy. It’s disappointing. We were so excited to get back home and I don’t think people saw the way we’ve been playing on this six-game road trip.”
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.