By Thomas Baldwin
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Forget about what has happened for the Niagara hockey team the past five-plus months. It's a whole new season now, as the Purple Eagles begin their quest for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008.
The journey begins on Friday and Saturday with home games against No. 8 Rochester Institute of Technology, which eliminated American International College this past weekend.
The Purple Eagles’ season ended badly, but the team now has to move on. It tried to do that this past week, with “fun” practices and team-building activities.
“I think we accomplished what we set out to do,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “The kids had no classes, and kind of just backed off the mental grind of going to school and hockey. The team is in great shape. Having a couple of team-building meetings will go a long way to start the new season.”
A big part of Niagara’s week was restoring confidence after getting shellacked at Air Force last weekend.
“It definitely was a wakeup call, and a good wakeup call,” said senior defenseman Dan Weiss. “We were kind of riding high there the last couple of weekends with a good sweep over Mercyhurst and a good sweep of Robert Morris before that. We were kind of on cloud nine, and I think it brought us back down to reality, which you need, especially going into the playoffs.
“I would rather have a little slipup against Air Force than in the playoffs. It was a good lesson learned and a good reality check.”
Niagara goes into the Atlantic tournament as the top seed, and collectively, did not have a preference about who it would play.
“It is that time of year, and a brand new season,” Burkholder said on Friday. “We will get the lowest seed, whoever survives this weekend. It doesn’t matter who we get, it is going to be a tough opponent and a tough out.”
Weiss thinks the Purple Eagles will have to win the conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA tourney. Relying on rankings would be too risky.
“It is going to come down to that,” Weiss said. “Unfortunately, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. I think we all see it as, we have to go through Air Force and other teams to get to the tournament anyway. It will be like a little redemption in the playoffs. You never know what can happen.
“There is definitely a feeling in the locker room, guys are a little upset about what happened (at Air Force). But then again, we put that past ourselves this week, and we are hungry to get after it in the playoffs, and have our own destiny in our hands now.”