NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – No. 15 Niagara earned its second consecutive trip to the Atlantic Hockey semifinals as Marc Zanette scored the overtime game-winner to defeat RIT 2-1 in the AHA quarterfinal round Saturday at Dwyer Arena.
Niagara (23-8-5) outshot the Tigers 41-35 and tied the record 22-game home-ice unbeaten streak to earn its spot in the semifinals being held at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., where the Purple Eagles will face Canisius on March 21.
With the game tied at 1 and 13:12 remaining on the clock in extra time, Ryan Murphy picked up a bouncing puck in the slot, pulling it to the right of RIT netminder Jordan Ruby before finding Zanette through a trio of Tigers defensemen. Zanette was waiting on the doorstep, pulling the trigger for his first game-winner of the season.
“Marc has a warrior mindset,” Niagara head coach David Burkholder said. “I didn’t have to make him a captain because he’s one of our leaders on and off the ice. He has given everything he has to this program and I’m so happy that we get to continue this ride with this team.”
Niagara’s penalty-killing unit had been solid all game, keeping RIT’s No. 2-ranked power-play unit in the nation off the scoreboard in seven attempts, including 1:09 of 5-on-3 action in the first period.
“We needed that first goal to settle our bench,” Burkholder said. “I told the boys, we have a 22-game unbeaten streak going back to last year on the line. Now we’re the only team in the nation to go unbeaten at home so I can’t say enough about these guys. They are resilient; to bend and not break under the pressure is amazing. Obviously, [goalie Carsen] Chubak was the story again to keep us in it.”
The game started off with the Purple Eagles having to battle back from a goal down for the second time in two nights. For only the fourth time all season NU headed into the first intermission trailing on home ice as the lone goal of the period came off an RIT stick. Adam Mitchell started the scoring early 1:12 into the first stanza as his one-timer beat Chubak for this third goal of the season.
The Tigers (15-18-5) continued to dictate play as the period wore on, outshooting the Purps 15-6 heading into the first intermission. RIT almost made it a two-goal game with 20 seconds remaining as Ben Lynch rang a wrister off the crossbar.
The Purple Eagles began to find their feet in the second 20 minutes of play, outshooting the Tigers 10-9 in the period, and finally knotted the game with 5:43 left in the stanza. Patrick Divjak took a sharp-angled shot to the left of Ruby that somehow snuck between him and the post. Kevin Ryan and Murphy picked up assists on the left winger’s eighth goal of the season.
After a scoreless final period, the squads headed into overtime for the sixth time in the past 13 meetings. After 54 seconds of 4-on-4 play to open the frame, RIT took to the power play, breaking out on a 2-on-1 a minute into the extra time. Dan Schuler and Mike Colavecchia raced in on Chubak, but an outstanding poke check from Zanette prevented a shot on goal.
Less than two minutes later Niagara ran into more penalty trouble, but Chubak, along with a last-second diving block by Kevin Albers, prevented a pair of potential scores on a wide-open net.
“We’re really excited to have another chance in Rochester,” Burkholder said. “We have some unfinished business. We played alright last year and RIT scored in overtime in the semifinals. So we’re thrilled to have another shot at the title.”
Chubak wrapped up the game with 34 saves, improving to 23-5-5 on the year.