Friday, December 10, 2010

Applying the Purple Nurple

Does the guy in black look like a goalie to you? And how did that guy above the Molson ad get such a good parking spot? Photo: Niagara official site

The Icers close out the fall semester tonight with the sort-of-traditional Friday-only engagement with the Niagara Purple Eagles, or "Purps" as they apparently call themselves. I watch too many cop shows to ever get used to that.

Niagara has served as a stand-alone game at the end of the semester in each of Scott Balboni's five seasons as coach. While the result has generally been an Icers romp, the December 15, 2006 game, a 3-2 Penn State win, stands out as a cautionary tale. Last season, the score was a more typical 10-3, behind George Saad's hat trick, two goals from Tim O'Brien, and a three-point night by Rich O'Brien. Then again, those three have a gongshow that resulted in a defenseman playing goal to thank for their stat padding. Seriously.
The main melee started after Penn State forward Paul Daley went to the ice and was hit by a Niagara player. [Niagara goalie Patrick] Janokowski once again was involved as players on both sides got into altercations.
As referees rushed in to break up the main brawl, Icers forward Tim O'Brien took a Niagara player and tossed him to the ice and skated to the bench.
"There was a little scrum in front of the net and it kind of dragged out towards the red line," O'Brien said. "He had my stick and I just kept pushing him in the head until he let go of it and he never did. It was nothing big."
Janokowski was ejected from the game following the incident and Niagara was left without a backup goaltender. A 30 minute delay ensued as the Purple Eagles sent defensemen Patrick Martin to the locker room to suit up and get in net.
"It kind of baffles me when a team doesn't have a backup goalie, and knowing that, he's still doing that," O'Brien said. "I don't know what he was trying to prove. Obviously it didn't work and the game ended up being 10-3, basically on his shoulders so I don't think he was doing the smart thing at all."
Despite their problems against the Icers, self-inflicted or otherwise, the Purps strike me as a pretty well-run organization, at least in the completely superficial sense. Which is admittedly pretty unexpected in cases where an NCAA team is on campus as well, meaning they're probably not getting the "varsity, just without scholarships" treatment, as at Penn State, Rhode Island, Delaware, Ohio and others. They have an up-to-date website with fresh content, like player profiles. They hosted an outdoor game last year, and will again this year. They even keep everyone up-to-date on recruiting efforts, unheard of in the ACHA. Compared to Towson, which is pretty much the exact opposite of all of that, gathering information on Niagara for this post was ridiculously easy.

A large share of the credit for that is probably due long-time head coach Larry Brzeczkowski, a guy who has a better understanding of Icers history than you might think, as a player at Buffalo State, a former archrival of PSU's, back in the early 90s. Brzeczkowski has assembled a large staff to keep things running smoothly - one that even includes a team dentist [insert bad "toothless hockey player" joke here].

The Purps (do I have to do this for the whole post?) have also had more on-ice success than failure, as they presently sit at 11-8-0. They opened the season with a big upset in an overtime thriller at Liberty, and shortly after found themselves on a seven-game winning streak. However, that all came to an abrupt halt with an ugly 7-0 loss at Pittsburgh. The slide continued with four more losses, including a weekend sweep at the hands of Youngstown State, thanks largely to a flu epidemic within the team. Since the hot start, Niagara has lost five of the last eight to fall out of the ACHA rankings after achieving a season-high No. 24 in the November 5th edition - although they did win their last game, 11-4 over an abysmal St. Bonaventure (Note: The stats I'm about to use exclude that game).

If any kind of turn back in the right direction is to continue against the Icers, it will probably fall heavily on their offense, which averages 5.79 goals per game and has only been held under three twice, while scoring seven or more six times. A lot of that offense comes from Joe Baldinelli (12 goals, 26 assists), who impressively carried a 4.0 while leading the team in goals last season, Marc Degiuilio (14 goals, 11 assists) and junior captain Trevor Kenney (10 goals, 22 assists), who recently bagged his 100th career point. Incidentally, Kenney also participates in that quintessential hockey player pastime of golf on a pretty serious level. The forward group is also supported by a strong freshman class, including former A(tlantic)JHLers (and roommates) Carl Lehtola and Erik McKown (16 combined goals).

Dane Wakefield is the expected starter in goal, and while his stats (4.41 goals against, 0.869 save percentage) aren't great cosmetically, I'm willing to bet that's due at least in part to Grant Fuhr Effect, with the amount of offense in front of him.

In front of Wakefield, defenseman Tyler Guarasci - another freshman - is out with a broken hand suffered last weekend. Another steady defenseman, Pat Roth, missed last Saturday's game with the infamous upper body injury. While Niagara does look to have good depth on D, it will certainly be tested tonight, with WUG Team USA member Kevin Morrison, George Antzoulis and Drew Mencer logging significant minutes. Morrison and Antzoulis add some offensive punch, while Mencer is of the stay-at-home variety.

Next stop: the dead zone. Although with the WUG tune-ups and Ohio looming (as well as a total of seven of eight on the road in January), I suspect that we won't run out of stuff to talk about.

Outside Reading

Steve Penstone finds that the team has a healthy outlook following last Saturday's ugly loss.

The Collegian offers reinforcement for that and also lets you know what the team's been up to this week, both on and off the ice.

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