From Niagara Hockey
By Rhett Teijeria
For the second straight season, the Niagara University ACHA Hockey Team has qualified for the Men’s Division 1 ACHA National Tournament, set to be held from March 10th-15th in St. Louis, Missouri. Despite not suiting up for athletic competition during the 2020-2021 pandemic season, the team’s primary focus was to utilize a unique combination of weekly practice sessions in conjunction with the coaching staff’s recruiting ability to ensure their preparation was set for a deep run in 2021-2022.
As it stands, Niagara is currently ranked amongst the top-20 programs on the entire ACHA Division 1 circuit, locked in at #19. The analytical algorithms that the ACHA uses to determine program rank make it difficult to crack the top-25. Not only do you have to square up against multiple high-end opponents, you need to beat them as well. The Purple Eagles have secured several noteworthy victories against programs ranked much higher than them, this season. 2 victories on the road at the historic Bird Arena against #15 Ohio University and an early-season 8-4 victory over the #13 University of Pittsburgh here at Dwyer Arena helped put them on the analytical map. At one point, said victories helped the program climb up to their highest rank of the season at #17 – which they held on to for several weeks until eventually falling to the 19th spot.
Qualifying for the National Tournament is an impressive feat, in and of itself. However, the road to St. Louis comes after Niagara’s conference championship playoff series that it set for the weekend of February 25th. The Northeast Collegiate Hockey League [NECHL] Championship series showcases all 6-members of the conference in a single-game elimination playoff tournament at the end of every season. The top 2 seeds heading into the tournament secure a first-round bye on Friday and battle for a chance to compete on championship Sunday during their Saturday-afternoon semifinal bouts. Niagara won this playoff tournament during the 2019-2020 season and has been waiting a full 2 years to defend their title against the likes of: The University at Buffalo / Canisius College / Oswego State University / The Rochester Institute of Technology and Rutgers University.
Prior-to the implementation of new national tournament qualification guidelines in 2020-2021, The NECHL required the competing teams to secure a championship victory during the playoff weekend in order to guarantee them a slot in the National Tournament. Starting this year, the team who secures the regular season championship headed into playoffs locks up the conference’s tournament berth. If and when a team finishes the season with a top-19 rank, they’re guaranteed placement into the tournament seeding, regardless of their conference’s post-season champ. The Purps are heading into their final 2-game series of the year with both boxes checked. With just 2 games left in-hand, their overall record sits at 24-4-1 for the entire year and 12-1, in-conference.
Head Coach, Tom Mooradian had this to say about the team’s current state headed into a very important month of hockey:
“I think the most important point of reference is the resilience of the 30 players in our locker room. We’re closing in on the 1-year anniversary of the passing of our brother, Patrick Romano which was simply devastating. Collectively, our goal headed into this season was to perform at an extremely high level in hopes to earn the opportunities we’ve been so blessed to secure. Yet, my own personal concern was the mental health of our players who had lost so much in just a 1-year timeframe. Our seniors that graduated in 2020 won a championship, only to have their careers cut short by the global pandemic. Then, all of our remaining vets sat on the sidelines and watched a healthy portion of teams competing on the ACHA Division 1 circuit, including 2 of the 3 from Buffalo [Canisius / Buffalo / Niagara] get to play while we couldn’t. In a nutshell, the past 2 years have been incredibly challenging and I think that’s what makes this year’s tournament push so special. I couldn’t be more proud of how every single one of our guys, coaches and players included, have handled the last 22 months and it’s been nice to lean on the game of hockey as a therapeutic measure, once again.”
Yet, with all that being said, he knows that the road in front of them is going to be a challenging one headed into March …
“Transitioning back to athletics, there’s a mutual respect amongst conference opponents, particularly when referencing their expressed condolences for the loss of Patty … but they’re coming for us and we need to be ready. We’ve witnessed a resurgence in NECHL competition over the last 2 seasons as games have simply become tighter and tighter. We need to utilize these last 6 periods of the season to prepare us for the road ahead. The goal isn’t to simply perform in-conference and get to the national tournament. The goal is to win the regular season, win the playoff championship and duplicate that success in St. Louis. That focus needs to be maximized, immediately if we expect to execute, successfully. Conference records, to me, don’t necessarily indicate how difficult an opponent can be to play. There are a plethora of talented players and coaches scattered all throughout the NECHL.”
Niagara holds the 4th best record on the ACHA Division 1 circuit and hopes to remain top 5 after next week’s 2-game clash with NECHL rival, RIT. Both games will be played on the road in Rochester as RIT looks to secure the second first round bye, come playoff time. The Purple Eagles will utilize their season’s dedication to Patrick Romano’s mother, Charlene as their motivational tool heading into post-season. After all, Patrick was and always will be the heartbeat of their squad.