Thursday, June 9, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Niagara

This week's KYE entry is an odd bird to say the least - and not just because there's no such thing in nature as a purple eagle. Niagara seems to either be pretty decent or pretty bad - and lately, they've been pretty bad. RPI does seem to get them, for the most part, when they're pretty good, so perhaps they're in for a little bit of a reversal of fortune as NU comes to Troy for the first time in six years with the Engineers looking to draw the all-time series just a little bit closer to equilibrium.

Niagara
Nickname: Purple Eagles
Location: Lewiston, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Dave Burkholder (16th season)
2015-16 Record: 6-25-6 (5-18-5 AHA, 10th place)
Series: Niagara leads, 4-2-0
First Game: November 15, 1997 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 23, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last NU win: November 18, 2009 (Lewiston, NY)

2016-17 game: October 21, 2016 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Vinny Muto, sr.; D Kevin Patterson, sr.; F Stephen Pietrobon, sr.; F TJ Sarcona, sr.; G Jackson Teichroeb, sr.; F Derian Plouffe, jr.; F Stanislav Dzakhov, jr.; F Nick Farmer, so.; D Niko Kovachis, so.; F Tanner Lomsnes, so.; F Sam Rennaker, so.; G Guillaume Thérien, so.; F Derek Brown, fr.; D Noah Delmas, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Since last RPI saw the Purps, there's really only been one season worth writing home about: in 2013, Niagara became the first Atlantic Hockey team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. NU more or less dominated the conference all year long, and despite a non-conference record below .500, they appeared heading into the AHA tournament to be in a position to earn a bid even if they did not win the league championship. And that's exactly what happened after suffering a 5-3 upset loss to Canisius in the semifinals.

It was the second at-large bid ever for Niagara, which was also the first at-large bid from outside the "Big Four" conferences when they nabbed a slot in the 12-team tournament in 2000 in the pre-autobid CHA. But unlike their previous at-large bid experience in which they shocked the college hockey world by upsetting New Hampshire, a second upset was not in the cards - although they gave it a good shot. The Purple Eagles took a 1-0 lead into the third period against North Dakota, but the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux put an end to those hopes early in the third with two goals in the first three minutes to take a lead they would not give back.

That NCAA appearance certainly represents a local peak for the program, as it's been mostly downhill since then. Niagara struggled to a 15-20-5 record the following year, tying the school record for losses, before shattering that record in 2015 with a 7-28-4 record, falling short of the previous benchmark for fewest wins by five. They actually finished behind American International in Atlantic Hockey, finishing dead last just two seasons after they won the AHA regular season by seven points.

Last season was either just as bad or worse, depending on your perception. Just six wins was again the lowest mark in school history, although the overall win percentage was up slightly thanks to fewer losses and a couple more ties. But make no mistake, the last two years have been absolutely miserable. It can't be fun winning just 13 games in two seasons.

Niagara's last non-conference victory was actually early in their last NCAA tournament season - a 2-0 win at Clarkson on October 26, 2012. Since then, they are 0-20-2 against teams from outside of Atlantic Hockey.

Last season, only Lake Superior State and Arizona State were worse at putting the puck in the net, and they ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation at keeping the puck out of the net. The power play was dead last in the nation at an abysmal 9.1% - the only PP unit in the country that did not convert at least 10% of the time - and the penalty kill was just below the ersatz Mendoza-line for playing shorthanded, killing penalties at only a 79.9% rate (usually 80% is considered a bare minimum).

In net, Teichroeb had numbers that weren't exactly the pits, but they weren't special either. He did maintain a 2.60 GAA, which isn't horrid, but his save percentage was .909 and that is something that usually needs to be better. Both are slightly ahead of his career figures, but the man who has been Niagara's top starter for the last three years is going to need a serious improvement if he's going to lead the team to better results than they've seen over the course of his career. Thérien got 12 starts in net and is still looking for his first collegiate win.

On offense, three of Niagara's top four goal scorers return, including Plouffe (11), Sarcona (7), and Rennaker (7), but outside of them (and one graduating senior who had 7), no one else on last year's roster managed more than 4 goals on the year. The goal scoring was spread out well, but it was too thin all around, really. The top four goal scorers netted 45% of the team's goal production, and that's a bit too top heavy.

This is just a team that has an awful lot about it that needs fixing and there's no obvious answer as to how they're going to be able to get it all fixed for this season. Perhaps the freshman class can come on board and provide some answers, but all in all this is a team that lacks cohesion to produce victories, especially outside of Atlantic Hockey. With RPI's game against Niagara not just being at home, but the overall home opener, this is absolutely a game that the Engineers should be favored in, especially after opening the year with three games on two long road trips against usually tough opponents. After taking on North Dakota the previous week, Niagara should be a bit easier to manage. Anything less than a win in this game would be a disappointment for RPI.

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