Finally COVID-free, NU hockey rounding into form

LEWISTON — After a five-week layoff due to COVID-19, Niagara University hockey was back in action this weekend, earning a two-game split against Mercyhurst.

The Purple Eagles (3-9-3, 2-8-3-1 Atlantic Hockey) lost 1-0 Friday in Erie, Pa., but earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory against the Lakers (8-11-1, 7-8-1-2 AHA) on Saturday night at Dwyer Arena.

The real story, however, is that the Purple Eagles are looking more like the team that pushed AIC to overtime in the Atlantic Hockey finals two years ago, and less like the team that got off to a sluggish start at the beginning of this season. A lot of that can be chalked up to the team actually being able to conduct full practices together, something that wasn’t happening earlier in the season due to the pandemic.

“We had our first week of uninterrupted practice,” head coach Jason Lammers said. “So, yeah, that makes a difference. Big credit to the staff and the job they did.”

Niagara played with confidence over the weekend, and was tough to play against. Players had their sticks in passing lanes, were positioned well in the defensive zone and did a good job of keeping most of Mercyhurst’s offensive opportunities to the outside. Lammers said the team’s compete level and attention to detail are getting to where he wants to see them.

Defenseman Jared Brandt was named an alternate captain, and adding him to the current leadership group has helped as well.

“The verbiage that they had on the bench was outstanding,” Lammers said.

The Purple Eagles killed off all nine penalties called against them over the weekend, including a lengthy five-on-three in the second period of Saturday night’s game. They also killed off a penalty toward the end of the third period Saturday to preserve the one-goal win.

Lammers credited assistant coach John Lidgett and the work he and the players put into the penalty kill during practice.

“It’s a game-changer when you can kill that off, and it hurts their bench for a long time,” he said, referring to the five-on-three.

Forwards Justin Kendall and Eric Cooley both beat out icing calls in the final two minutes of Saturday evening’s game to keep play going and take time off of the clock. That extra effort is what leads to wins in close games, Lammers said.

“Those are the little plays that really matter,” he said.

Cooley scored his third goal of the season on the power play Saturday, and Ludwig Stenlund had his fifth of the season on a wicked wrist shot that blew by Mercyhurst goaltender Kyle McClennan. Lammers said he’s looking for Stenlund to do more of that going forward.

“Hopefully for him, that helps him really get ignited,” he said.

Niagara goaltender Chad Veltri earned his first victory of the season Saturday night and only allowed two goals on the weekend. He made 44 saves on 46 shots overall.

“He's got excellent hockey sense and really reads the play well, and where the pucks are going to end up,” Lammers said. “He's able to anticipate a lot, and I thought he hit his spots real well this whole weekend. And when you get goaltending like that, it's really a confidence builder.”

Niagara plays RIT at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Rochester before a home-and-home series against Canisius over the weekend.

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