LEWISTON, N.Y. — For three members of the Niagara Purple Eagles men’s hockey team, their home opener on Friday night came against a familiar opponent.
Niagara played host to the Robert Morris, which had made the four-hour trek north for the Colonials’ first game of the season. It wasn’t just the proximity of the teams or their association in the Atlantic Hockey Conference that provided the familiarity.
When the Colonials headed north, they followed in the footsteps of Purple Eagles head coach North Allegheny alum Jason Lammers, who accepted his first NCAA Division I head coaching position with Niagara this summer. Lammers has been joined this season at Niagara by former Robert Morris assistant coach Matt Nicholson and freshman right-winger Eric Cooley, a West Mifflin native.
On Friday night, the trio with Pittsburgh ties prevailed over the Pittsburgh team, as the Purple Eagles got an overtime goal from Tanner Lomsnes to beat the Colonials, 4-3.
The win was Lammers’ first as a Division I head coach, as the Purple Eagles improved to 1-1 on the season. Cooley record his first career point with a third-period assist and Nicholson helped guide Niagara to victory while facing for the first time the club he coached for six years.
“I saw a lot of the parents and a couple of kids before and you joke and you wish them well during the year, but not tonight,” Nicholson said after the game.
For Lammers, the first victory as a head coach was important, but not as important as re-establishing Niagara as a touch place to play in Atlantic Hockey. The Purple Eagles were both the regular-season and conference tournament champions in 2013 under then-head coach Dave Burkholder. But they fell to 15-20-5 in 2013-14, won seven games in 2014-15, six games in 2013-14 and five games in 2016-17.
That prompted the change that brought in Lammers and that’s why it was important for his club to get in the win column early this season.
“I think this helps us create confidence in the group and most importantly now, they have something to believe in now,” Lammers said. “They’ve been believing for a long time here now since I’ve been here. They believe in themselves and they believe in each other. It’s fun to be a part of.”
Robert Morris saw Niagara on the final weekend of the regular season last year, when the Colonials swept the Purple Eagles, 6-2 and 5-1 in a home-and-home series as Niagara finished the year on a 12-game losing streak. This time around, there was a palpable difference in the Purple Eagles.
“They believe now,” Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley said. “They’ve got a new head coach, a new staff. They’ve got belief, they’ve got a fresh start, they played hard and they played well. Unfortunately for us, when you’re perceived as one of the best teams in the league, you’re going to get everybody’s top game.”
The Colonials were not on their top game, especially in the early going. Newly minted captain Alex Bontje took a tripping minor eight seconds into the game, fellow senior defenseman Robert Powers joined him in the penalty box 51 seconds later and 2:26 into the game, Niagara took a 1-0 lead on a Derian Plouffe power-play goal.
“I thought we were back on our heels,” Schooley said. “I though we were reaching. They dictated the pace for the first 12 minutes of the game.”
“I don’t think we were ready to play,” senior forward Brady Ferguson said. “The first five minutes of the game, we weren’t moving our feet. We were getting beat to pucks.”
The Colonials scored two goals on the power play, with Ferguson notching both on wide-open, back-door feeds from Eric Israel and Michael Louria. Timmy Moore added an assist on each as the Colonials finished 2 for 8 with the man advantage.
“I think the power play did OK,” Ferguson said.
With Robert Morris trailing by a pair deep into the third, Ferguson’s second strike spurred a late-game rally that was finished when Alex Tonge broke through with Francis Marotte pulled for an extra attacker at 18:33 of the third period. Ferguson assisted on the goal to give him three points on the night.
The Colonials showed heart and determination to come from behind to the tie the game on the road and force overtime, but there was little in the way of good feelings afterwards, regardless of the effort.
“It was nice that we tied it with a minute left, but I don’t think we should have even been in that position,” Ferguson said. “I think Franky made a couple unbelievable saves. I don’t think we would have even been in the game if it wasn’t for him.
The Colonials (0-1-0; 0-1-0 in AHC) will visit Canisius for a two-game series next weekend before returning home to face Army Oct. 20 and 21. The games next weekend with be Canisius’ season opener. The Golden Griffins lost to Ryerson, 3-2, in an exhibition on Friday.