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Despite losses, Niagara feels its playing its best hockey

LEWISTON – The results have been disappointing. No doubt about that. Niagara has lost nine of its last 12 games and has slid four points behind first-place Canisius and Holy Cross in Atlantic Hockey.

But even after its latest setback, a 4-2 loss to Air Force in Dwyer Arena Friday night, there was no panic from the Purple Eagles. Only opportunity.

"I was really impressed with our guys and the way that we continue to grow in our belief in each other and belief in the system and the steps that we've taken," Niagara coach Jason Lammers said. "I think we're playing our best hockey right now. Although we haven't gotten the product that we want, our process continues to grow and that's been fun to watch.

"We're evaluated always on the scoreboard but our process is better than when we were getting the product and the wins before. This is only going to help us."

The scoreboard has not been a friendly place for Niagara. The Purple Eagles started off hot with a 4-1-0 record out of the gate. They were ranked 20th in the nation at one point. They were in first place in Atlantic Hockey at one point.

But as Niagara entered 2018 they found themselves in a sports paradox – they're playing better hockey, but not getting the wins.

"I feel like sticking to the process has been a huge key for our success," said sophomore defenseman Noah Delmas. "There's going to be ebbs and flows through the whole season and there's ebbs and flows throughout each game as well, right? A lot of our success came from the power play at the beginning of the season. We're kinda running dry a bit right now.

"The last four games I felt like it could have been our game if we minimized mistakes and capitalized on our own chances. I feel like if we stay positive and stick to the process, it's going to come around for us pretty soon."

The power play did not help Niagara on Friday as the Purple Eagles went just 1 for 9 with the man advantage. Granted, Air Force came into the game having killed off the last 13 power play opportunities it faced and had the top penalty killing unit in the nation last season.

Still, Niagara had chances and just couldn't bury them. They were a touch off on a shot, a tad late on a pass, a beat off finishing opportunities that could have tied the game.

After a scoreless first period, Air Force took a 2-0 lead in the second. Evan Giesler scored at 4:08 when he got a breakaway. Niagara goalie Brian Wilson made the save but the rebound went in off a Purple Eagle defender.

Brady Tomlak made it a two-goal lead when he gloved the puck down off a bounce off the glass. He got his stick on the puck just in time to push it past Wilson.

Two goals. Two unlucky bounces for Niagara. But if the Purple Eagles are going to build a positive culture, they're going to have to let those bad bounces roll off their backs.

"You've got to control what you can control," said Niagara captain Derian Plouffe. "Obviously in the game of hockey bounces are going to happen like that. We just need to keep our head high and keep working, keep being positive."

Keep working they did. Niagara got on the board at 8:52 of the third on a goal by Sean King. While Air Force scored on the power play about three minutes later, the Purple Eagles battled back again with Delmas getting his third of the year. Delmas got hold of a rebound in the high slot and scored, breaking Niagara's 0-for-7 skid on the power play in the game.

There were chances for Niagara to tie the game, but an empty netter from Kyle Haak sealed the win for the Falcons.

"We want to see our offense continue to grow and we thought we left a couple of chances out there in front of the net," Lammers said. "We want to see our D continue to move pucks and get it going north. We thought when we played fast, we were hard to play against."

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