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NIAGARA SEEKS PAYBACK

Oh, the places John Heffernan went as a member of the Niagara Purple Eagles' hockey team last year. Voted the team's most improved player, the forward helped Niagara advance to the Final Eight of the NCAA Tournament to cap the program's Cinderella story.

But during his Western New York stay last summer, the Saskatchewan native spent a lot of his time talking about something else.

"I worked with a lot of kids this summer and they kept asking how we lost to Canisius," Heffernan said. "I think that game kind of sticks out in the fans' minds."

Last year, the Ice Griffs earned a 2-1 win despite being outshot, 58-15. This year's version of the Dunn Tire Hockey Challenge is set for tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Amherst Pepsi Center (Empire, 1520). Fewer than 300 tickets are available for the game at $10 each.

It's a meaningless game in the grand scheme of things, except for area bragging rights. Canisius is the middle of a playoff race in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference while Niagara is gearing up for its postseason College Hockey America conference tournament.

But tonight they both will take a break from their own little corner of the college hockey world to renew the local rivalry.

"I think we're more concerned right now with our league and our playoff situation," said Canisius senior goalie Stephen Fabiilli. "There's really no pressure for us in the game. We know we're the underdogs, just like we were last year, and we just have to go out and play our game."

Last year, the Ice Griffs' game revolved around MAAC goalie of the year Sean Weaver standing on his head, outdueling Niagara's Greg Gardner. This year, the faces may have changed, but the marquee matchup still will be in goal.

For Canisius, Weaver continues to sit on the bench nursing a right knee injury. Fabiilli has stepped in and earned three conference goalie of the week selections with his .902 save percentage and 3.03 goals-against average.

"We thought we had two pretty good goaltenders with what they both did last year," Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh said. "At the beginning of the season, we were leaning toward Sean, but when he got hurt . . . we had to turn to Stephen, who I think realized he had a great opportunity to play."

Meanwhile for Niagara, two freshmen, Rob Bonk and Scott Lindsay, have held their own in the shadow of the Gardner legacy.

Bonk was the clear No. 1 earlier in the season and has a .902 save percentage and a 2.53 goals-against average. But Lindsay has gotten a lot of confidence as of late, starting 10 games with a .905 save percentage and a 2.57 goals-against average. Either could start tonight.

"The biggest question for our team this year was going to be our goaltending and that's probably been our strongest point," Heffernan said. "Rob Bonk has been sensational and as of late Scott Lindsay's been playing well. We've got two goalies who can play and as players, we have every confidence in them."

"I think my first half was better," said Bonk, who's won the CHA defensive player of the week three times and rookie of the week once. "The second half of the season, I've been a little off and disappointed with my play. I've been injured (groin) and sick and I've been pretty up and down."

Niagara could use an up night against Canisius. After dropping a 3-2 decision at Lake Superior State, Niagara is 13-14-4 overall in a roller-coaster season. Indoctrinating 15 freshmen into the program, the Purple Eagles struggled early in October and November. But then came Christmas and the second half of the season. Guys got used to each other, and it started showing on the scoreboard. They went 4-3 in January and are 2-2-1 in February.

The freshmen finally understand the level of play in College Hockey America. But do they understand the importance of playing the Ice Griffs?

"We have a lot of people from the area so for them this is a special game," Bonk said. "But for the rest of us, it's just another game and we'll get up for it just like we get up for every other game."

"The game with Canisius is new for nearly everybody on this team," said Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald. "Last year it was easy for the seniors to get up for the game. This year, we have to educate our freshman on the rivalry."

Meanwhile, don't let a Canisius roster full of upperclassmen fool you into thinking they feel an intimacy with the rivalry.

"I think the hype is more for the media and fans in Buffalo," Fabiilli said. "We're more concerned with our league and I'm sure (Niagara) is more concerned with its season. For me, personally, it's just another non-conference game and I'll play the same as I always do."

How he's played of late has been pretty great. He stopped 20 shots against Connecticut this weekend for his first shutout of the year and has anchored the Ice Griffs through their current three-game winning streak. Canisius is 13-10-3 overall and fighting for fourth in the MAAC standings, which would bring home-ice advantage for the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

The two teams have met seven times in the last four years, with Niagara holding a 5-2 advantage.

DUNN TIRE CHALLENGE
Niagara vs. Canisius
Where: Amherst Pepsi Center
When: 7:30 tonight Tickets: $10
TV: Empire Radio: 1520

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