This is one heck of a way to return from an extended holiday break -- facing off against your local nemesis.
But local bragging rights aren't the only thing on the line Saturday when the hockey version of the Canisius-Niagara rivalry resumes at 7 p.m. in Dwyer Arena. Niagara wants to continue its strong play and winning ways while Canisius is looking to spark a turnaround to its season.
Niagara hopes to pick up where it left off in early December. The Purple Eagles finished the first semester with a 10-6-3 overall record and in first place in College Hockey America.
Niagara won four of its last five games, including a sweep of conference foe Wayne State in Dwyer Arena on Dec. 8-9.
Canisius went 4-12-1 and lost all four of its non-conference games. The Golden Griffins sit in ninth place in the 10-team Atlantic Hockey Association.
The talk about Niagara has focused on its high-powered offense. The top line of senior Sean Bentivoglio and sophomores Les Reaney and Ted Cook continues to impress. The trio has combined for 39 goals and 49 assists while as a team, Niagara ranks 11th in the country in scoring (3.63 goals per game) and 15th on the power play (28 goals in 139 attempts).
"I think the hidden factor is that we went 6-0-3 in games that were tied in the third period," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "We were getting timely goals when games were on the line. We found a way to win those close games and I think that's the sign of a team that's maturing every weekend and hopefully becoming a championship team."
While goal scoring gets the headlines, the Niagara players understand the team concept -- valuing a strong defensive unit and appreciating the steady goaltending developing in sophomore Juliano Pagliero and senior Allen Barton.
"Pags and Allen have done a great job for us," Bentivoglio said. "They've both stepped up their games and have been a huge part of our success. Our defense as a whole has been great, too. Our team doesn't have any weaknesses. We can put the puck in the net, we have great core defensemen and our goalies have been outstanding."
Canisius, on the other hand, has struggled to get all its components firing at the same time. Upperclassmen started the season slowly while the freshmen carried the load. For a time in November everyone was on the same page and the Griffs enjoyed a four-game unbeaten streak but the team couldn't sustain it.
Offensively, the team continues to be led by a trio of freshmen -- Buffalo native Josh Heidinger (7 goals, 14 assists), Carl Hudson (8 goals, 5 assists) and Jason Weeks (3 goals, 8 assists).
"Starting fresh helps," Heidinger said of coming back after the break. "I think what we're looking for is consistency all around -- from our forwards to our goalies to our defensemen."
So what will Saturday's clash be like?
Niagara suffered from some slow starts before the break and could be caught off guard in the first five minutes of the game, particularly if Canisius comes out of the gate fired up.
Statistics clearly give an edge to the Purple Eagles, who are 6-0-1 at home while the Griffs are 0-7-1 on the road.
Additionally, Niagara has an impressive power play while Canisius likes to take penalties; the Griffs are ranked third in the country in spending 26.9 minutes in the box each game.
But then again, this isn't just a numbers game. There's emotion and more than a wee bit of pride.
"Last year at this time, being new to the area and the rivalry I really didn't have a great understanding of Niagara-Canisius," second-year Canisius coach Dave Smith said. "Now I know that their program is perceived to be a higher level than ours and it's not. They have had success and are having a good year this year . . . but it's time for us to make a statement that we're right there."