By THOMAS BALDWIN
Niagara Gazette — One question regarding the Niagara University men's hockey team — ranked 18th in the country but winless in two straight — is an obvious one, since the Purple Eagles have had lots of time off recently over the Holidays.
How will they perform in only their second game in the last 24 days?
Niagara hosts Atlantic Hockey rival and two-time defending conference champion Air Force at 7 p.m. Saturday in Dwyer Arena, marking the beginning of the second half of the teams' conference schedule.
After defeating Sacred Heart on Dec. 1, the conference-leading Purple Eagles (10-3-4, 9-0-1) tied the Rochester Institute of Technology on Dec.12 and lost to Bowling Green on Dec. 29. Niagara could be a little disheveled and a tad rusty.
“It is always a concern, and you hope it is the same for both teams,” said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder, whose club has 19 points and leads the conference by five points. “That being said, I was very impressed with our energy Saturday at Bowling Green. You can practice and hit the weight room as much as you want, but the bottom line is, it is not the same as playing games. We are going to have to play our way back into game shape.”
The obviously biggest story of Niagara’s season so far has been the play of goaltender Carsen Chubak. The junior is all over the place in terms of national statistics. He leads the country in goals against average (1.36), save percentage (.957) and shutouts (five).
Niagara forward Giancarlo Iuorio is in a 3-way tie for the national goal scoring lead with 12.
The Falcons have been average this season, going 4-4-2 in conference play and 6-8-4 overall. They are seventh in the conference, nine points behind the Purple Eagles, who they took five out of a possible six points from last season.
Air Force’s Stephen Carew has points in six of his last seven games. Cole Gunner has scored goals in five of his last six games.
“They are just starting to find their footing,” Burkholder said of the Falcons. “They didn’t get off to a start that anyone in the country thought they would. They are starting to hit their stride. They are going to provide a lot of problems for us.”
The game on Saturday is Niagara’s last home game for awhile.
The Purple Eagles are at American International and Holy Cross the next two weekends. The following weekend, they play a home and home series against RIT. The two clubs play in Rochester on Jan. 25 and then at Dwyer the following evening.
Niagara, which is 6-0-2 at home this season, knows Saturday’s game is a huge one.
“It is against Air Force, and until someone knocks them off, it is their league,” Burkholder said. “We want to protect our home turf. We have done a good job of it in the past. They are huge points.”