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By Miguel Rodriguez

Do you remember when the upstart Niagara University men's hockey team visited Ann Arbor, Mich., and had the audacity to beat the powerful University of Michigan at Yost Ice Arena?

Do you remember when the Purple Eagles, still in their infancy, had the nerve to score wins over ice dynasties like Boston University, Ohio State, Cornell and Rensselaer?

Who knew Niagara's penchant for beating college hockey's elite would all but disappear following its win over New Hampshire in the first round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

The nine seniors on this year's squad didn't think that could happen. They figured they'd experience growing pains early in their careers, but would add to the legacy started by the program's first graduating class in 2000.

While the Purple Eagles have played competitive games against college hockey's upper crust the past three seasons, the eighth-year program has only beaten two big-time foes -- Cornell and Michigan State -- since making the NCAA Tournament.

But most disturbing is the fact Niagara has not come close to winning a College Hockey America championship since 2000, the conference's inaugural season. The Purple Eagles' second-largest senior class carries a 46-53-11 record into the season opener at 3 p.m. Saturday at Dwyer Arena against Union.

"We certainly replaced a really strong class (of 15 seniors)," senior captain Joe Tallari said. "That was one thing that was expected of us, to help bring this team a CHA title and to make the (NCAA) Tournament. Obviously, we want to make sure we do that at least in one of our four years here because that's what we were brought here for."

Niagara went 15-17-5 last season, but finished second in the CHA with an 11-4-5 mark.

The Purple Eagles have a legitimate chance of making the NCAA Tournament this season, what with three-time defending champion Wayne State rebuilding after graduating 12 seniors. NU's toughest challengers figure to be Bemidji State and Alabama-Huntsville. Bemidji, which has nine seniors and seven juniors, is the preseason favorite in the CHA Coaches' Poll because it has the conference's best defense corps. Huntsville is a gritty team that has star power in junior forward Jared Ross, senior forward Mike Funk and sophomore goalie Scott Munroe, but needs to replace the nine seniors it lost to graduation.

Niagara features 20 returnees from last year's team and 13 of those have two seasons of experience. Tallari needs 24 goals and 54 points to become the program's all-time leader in both categories.

"We think we have a good chance not because other teams have lost players, but because we've matured," said Tallari, who has 44 goals and 92 points in 107 career games. "We think we're ready to get to that next level."

In order to do that, the Purple Eagles will need Tallari, who was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player, to match or exceed last season's production of 26 goals and 55 points. The reigning CHA Player of the Year will play on a line with center and fellow captain Barret Ehgoetz. The 5-foot-8 junior from Kincardine, Ont., expects to build on last year's career season, in which he recorded highs of 20 goals and 45 points. Their linemate, sophomore Jason Williamson, will miss at least a month with a separated shoulder.

Tonawanda native and senior forward Chris Welch was limited to 28 games last season, but still posted career highs in goals (14) and points (30). He will play on a line with senior Hannu Karru (nine goals, 14 assists, 23 points) and sophomore Justin Cross (6-9-15).

Senior forward Nick Kormanyos, who played through an assortment of injuries last season, has looked good in practice, according to Burkholder.

But the key to the season will be goal tending. If Niagara continues to receive the erratic goal tending it has the past three seasons, it will watch the NCAA Tournament on television in the plush surroundings of the Dwyer Arena players' lounge.

While senior goalie Rob Bonk has had his share of spectacular performances, highlighted by last year's 25-save effort in a 2-1 win at nationally ranked Michigan State, he has far too many ordinary performances on his resume for a goalie of his pedigree.

"I think a lot of the game is mental and that's a place where I think has sometimes come back to hurt me in the past," said Bonk, who posted an 8-8-2 record with a 2.93 goals against average and .899 save percentage last season.

"I think I've matured a lot over the last three years. I've been able to experience a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I want to work on being consistent and helping us win every night." While the Purple Eagles' No. 1 goalie job is still up for grabs, it's likely Bonk, a product of the U.S. National Development program, will start his fourth season opener.

"As a staff, we are hoping that he will keep the net. That's what seniors are expected to do," third-year coach Dave Burkholder said.

"I expect him to step it up a lot this year," Tallari added.

Niagara's other goalies are sophomore Jeff Van Nynatten (7-8-3, 3.79 GAA and .878 save percentage) and freshman Al Barton.

Senior captain Dave Hominuk is a physical presence on defense. His partner figures to be Brian Hartman, who is coming off a solid freshman campaign in which he earned CHA All-Rookie Team honors after recording four goals and 14 points.

The Purple Eagles have struggled with their breakout since losing defensemen Chris MacKenzie and current assistant coach Nate Handrahan to graduation in 2000. They may have solved part of that problem with the addition of Patrick Oliveto. Oliveto, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman defenseman from Greece, N.Y., is a solid passer with a reputation for making smart decisions with the puck.

While the CHA tournament champion earns an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA Tournament, Niagara has a great opportunity to position itself for an at-large bid. The Purple Eagles play six games against ranked teams (Michigan, Boston University, New Hampshire, Denver and Ferris State). They also have two games against UMass-Lowell, a Hockey East Association member coached by former Niagara pilot Blaise MacDonald, and two games at Dwyer Arena against Western Michigan, a member of the rugged Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

The Purple Eagles also have the memory of last year's CHA Tournament failure to serve as motivation.

NU carried a 3-1 lead into the third period of its semifinal game against Wayne State, but unraveled in the final 20 minutes of a 6-4 defeat.

"Last year it was in our hands and we let it go," Tallari said. "This year, we're certainly not going to let that happen again."

"It's those experiences we need to learn from and it's up to everyone when we go back to Kearney, Neb., (for the CHA Tournament) that we have a different ending," Burkholder said.

Miguel Rodriguez is a freelance writer covering hockey for the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at miguel_rodriguez33@hotmail.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 7 2003