In their bid to solidify themselves as an NCAA caliber team, this weekend became crucial to the Niagara men's hockey team.
The Purple Eagles did their part, sweeping Quinnipiac with a 3-2 win Saturday night in front of 1,637 -- the third largest crowd at Dwyer Arena.
While the College Hockey America conference title and the accompanying automatic berth into the NCAA tournament field is the goal, taking two games from No. 16 Quinnipiac, current leader of the ECAC Hockey League, helps No. 20 Niagara (15-8-3) with its chances for an at-large bid.
"This was huge for us, especially coming off two losses in Denver," senior captain Sean Bentivoglio said. "To rebound at home with two wins and keeping our streak in Dwyer alive is huge. Hopefully we can carry on with this momentum."
Niagara remained undefeated at Dwyer this season (9-0-1) because of the performance of sophomore goaltender Juliano Pagliero.
"It's like a broken record. He's been unbelievable and was again tonight," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "He single-handedly stole us a victory against a very good team. They had more jump and energy and they executed offensively over the course of the night way more than we did, but Juliano saved the day, no question."
Pagliero turned in another impressive performance, making 40 saves -- many of them on prime scoring chances for the Bobcats. Pagliero moved well in the crease to hold off the solid Quinnipiac attack.
"I saw the puck well and was able to fight through screens," Pagliero said. "I would say there were six or seven chances where I left rebounds out in the open and the [defensemen] cleared the puck, especially on the penalty kill."
The Bobcats held a 42-21 advantage in shots but went 0 for 6 on the power play.
Quinnipiac (11-8-4) took a 1-0 lead late in the first period when Brandon Wong intercepted a pass off the boards to start a three-on-one rush. Wong passed to Jean-Marc Beaudoin who promptly buried the puck.
Niagara struck back quickly in the second. At the 10:01 mark, Bentivoglio stole a clearing pass and his off-balance shot tied the game at 1-1.
Just 18 seconds later, Niagara generated a three-on-two with Vince Rocco feeding Egor Mironov for a 2-1 lead.
The advantage was extended to 3-1 at 11:05 of the third when Les Reaney collected a deflected pass in front the Quinnipiac net and released a quick shot over goalie Bud Fisher's right shoulder.
The Bobcats cut the lead to 3-2, but Niagara played solid defense and penalty killers sealed the win.
The Niagara power play continued to sputter. It was 0 for 21 in the last four games, 0 for 8 in the two games against Quinnipiac, which has the fourth-best penalty kill in the nation.
"We're concerned and it's an issue because the power play has won us a lot of games," Burkholder said. "If we scored some power-play goals this weekend, we wouldn't have been biting our nails to the bitter end."
The series with Quinnipiac ended Niagara's non-conference schedule. The Purple Eagles went 9-7-0 against non-conference opponents.
They return to College Hockey America play when they host Wayne State on Friday and Saturday.