The Niagara women's hockey team has a powerful opportunity despite its losing record.
Never in the six-year history of the program have the Purple Eagles played in a championship game.
Granted, their 8-22-3 overall record doesn't exactly scream title winner, nor does their 4-7-1 College Hockey America mark.
But Niagara has won four of its last seven games, including a 3-1 upset of nationally ranked Mercyhurst (No. 6 last week) on Saturday in Erie, Pa.
The recent surge makes the Purple Eagles a contender when they host the CHA Tournament on Saturday and Sunday in Dwyer Arena. Even if Niagara wins the tournament, its season will be over because CHA does not receive an automatic bid to the four-team NCAA Tournament.
Niagara will face Findlay (16-14-4, 4-6-2) at 5 p.m. Saturday while Wayne State (15-14-4, 3-8-1) will face Mercyhurst (24-6-4, 11-1-0) at 2 p.m. The winners will meet in the championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday.
"I don't think you could find closer teams," Niagara coach Margot Page said about the matchup with Findlay, which went 2-1-1 against the Purple Eagles during the regular season.
"We're very even, similar, hard-working teams with disciplined systems, strong goaltending and strong special teams," Page said. "The one thing we're looking at is making history. We have never been in a championship game, never been in a final. For Findlay, this is the last weekend of play in their program (the school dropped its men's and women's programs). They're shutting down, so they're looking to extend their season as long as they can and leave with a lot of pride."
Niagara's game plan seems to have come together after a dismal start and long losing stretches. Leading the offense is senior Lindsay Vine (nine goals, nine assists) and freshman Katie Gray (eight goals, 10 assists). Junior Candice Moxley has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists), sophomore Amy Jack 12 points (seven goals, five assists) and senior Bradi Cochrane 10 points (two goals, eight assists).
Freshman Allison Rutledge has been the main goaltender with a 7-15-2 mark, 2.61 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
A key for Niagara has been its special teams. In their last four games, the Purple Eagles have gone 6 for 10 on the power play while limiting their opponents to just one goal on 23 power-play opportunities.
"The special teams are so important," Page said. "When you start seeing success on the power play, you start believing in yourself and in each other and the system. You see your hard work is starting to pay off. It's fun to score goals. For me as a coach, it's more fun when we don't allow goals, but it's human nature that it's fun to score goals. It gives you an instant rush, instance confidence."
Not to mention it's fun to finally win. Niagara figured to endure growing pains this season after losing leading scorer Valerie Hall to graduation. Teresa Marchese-Delmonte, who would have been the leading returning scorer, transferred to Mercyhurst. Losing that offensive firepower took its toll early in the season.
At one point, Niagara suffered through an 11-game winless streak (10 losses and one tie) and then another six-game losing skid. To put together a win streak at the end of the season (three in a row before Mercyhurst won Sunday's rematch) makes the future, and even this weekend, look bright.
"It's tough to stay positive the whole season when you're not winning games," Page said. "When you go through three-quarters of your season with only four wins, it's tough to stay focused. I think this does show the character of the team and the pride of the team that when they're not winning, they kept plunking through and learned a lot. . . . This is a team that really likes each other and helps each other. They do care about each other and that's really important."
Tickets for the CHA Tournament are available by calling the Dwyer Arena ticket office at 286-8622, or at Ticketmaster.com and Ticketmaster outlets.