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Former NU hockey star has shot at his big goal Bentivoglio helps playoff push by Providence Bruins

LEWISTON -- During his four seasons with the Niagara University men's hockey team, Sean Bentivoglio heard a serenade that has become quite popular in HSBC Arena when the Buffalo Sabres are on the power play.

"Shoot!"

And just like the Sabres faithful, the refrain chanted daily by Purple Eagles coach Dave Burkholder wasn't a silly love song. It was more like something that would be classified as angry heavy metal, a not-so-subtle message to the speedy left winger to take advantage of his rocket shot in the slot and ditch the habit of passing up quality scoring chances by dishing the puck to others.

Bentivoglio admits he remains a pass first and shoot second kind of player. But firing the puck more often the past two seasons is among the reasons the senior from Thorold, Ont., now has a chance to shoot for a big hockey dream.

Bentivoglio has earned more than just a curious look from a professional hockey team since Niagara's season ended March 10. The 21-year-old has been one of the keys to the Providence Bruins' playoff push in the American Hockey League's Atlantic Division.

Heading into this past weekend games, the Bruins were in third place. The top four teams in the division once the season concludes next Sunday make the playoffs.

Bentivoglio has contributed to the playoff push by the Boston Bruins' top minor-league affiliate by recording two goals, five assists and a plus-3 rating in his first nine games.

"That's very impressive, going to a strange team in midseason and not knowing their systems," Burkholder said. "That he'd have that type of impact, that's a great start for Sean." Bentivoglio finished his NU career with 43 goals, 89 assists and 132 points in 145 games. During a telephone interview last week, he said, "Coming in, I knew it'd be a little bit of a step up, but I've been playing with really good players, so that helps [the transition]."

Bentivoglio wasn't the only Purple Eagle to earn a prorated professional contract once Niagara lost in the College Hockey America Tournament semifinals to eventual champion Alabama-Huntsville.

Defenseman Patrick Oliveto, a senior business major, earned a deal with the Reading Royals of the East Coast Hockey League. He tallied one assist in seven games. It came in his debut March 13.

But Bentivoglio's opportunity is an exceptional one for former Niagara players.

The Purple Eagles have had more than 40 team members play professionally in the United States and in Europe, but rare is the day they debut in the AHL -- which is one step below the NHL -- and become a key contributor in a playoff race.

Former Niagara forward and CHA Player of the Year Joe Tallari had a one-game appearance with the Hartford Wolfpack of the AHL after NU's 2004 NCAA Tournament loss to Boston College but has since bounced back and forth between the ECHL and AHL.

Former Niagara goalie and current assistant coach Greg Gardner was the first to sign an NHL contract. Gardner has AHL experience, but the only former Purple Eagle to ever appear in a regular-season NHL game was Matt Ryan, who did so last year with the Los Angeles Kings.

Bentivoglio hopes to become the next one to make it to the show, but getting the Bruins to the playoffs is more of an immediate concern, he said.

"I'm looking forward to making a run at the playoffs," he said. "I'm not worried about my personal stats.

"The best thing for me is to just play my game and impress the team here, and other teams, so that when I'm a free agent [after the season], hopefully I'll be able to get an NHL or another AHL deal."

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Bentivoglio is coming off a breakout season. He matched his career high in goals (16) and set a high for points (46 in 37 games) to become the fifth Purple Eagle to earn the CHA Player of the Year Award in the conference's eight seasons. Former NU players to earn the honor include Gardner (2000); Tallari (2003); the program's all-time scoring leader, Barret Ehgoetz (2004); and former goalie Jeff Van Nynatten (2006).

Bentivoglio scored in a variety of situations this season, unlike past ones. He scored the only three short-handed goals of his collegiate career, added a career-high six on the power play and was second on the team in game-winning goals, with four. In fact, he tallied his nine-career game winners over his final two seasons, after scoring just 11 goals combined during his first two.

"I've developed touch around the net and have more confidence shooting," Bentivoglio said. "But my first instinct is to set up the play."

Cue the music.

"He has a dangerous shot," coach Burkholder said. "I think if he shoots more, he's going to have success at the next level."

Bentivoglio displayed the tools to potentially become a solid professional someday despite his early scoring woes.

His ability to scare opponents with his speed and create off the rush is the reason he played as a true 18-year-old freshman in a time when most collegiate programs (Division I, II, III and club) favor recruiting 19- and 20-year-old prospects from prep schools and junior leagues.

His willingness to hit and battle along the boards also helped him earn playing time.

"He was an impact player in juniors," Burkholder said. "We got him to Niagara at a time when we weren't getting a lot of high-end guys. He's going to end up signing an NHL deal based on what he's done so far in the AHL. I'm really happy for Sean and his family, and it's really great for our program as well."

Oliveto is a slick 6-2, 195-pounder from the Rochester suburb of Greece whose strengths include on-ice smarts and deft passing touch to start the breakout.

Although he only scored twice this season and 10 times in 138-career games, he scored perhaps the prettiest goal of the year in a Dec. 8 Niagara win over Wayne State. He deked Warriors goalie Will Hooper into embarrassment to stylishly finish off a breakaway before several pro scouts in Dwyer Arena, including current Chicago Blackhawks assistant general manager and former Sabres coach and player Rick Dudley.

Oliveto, a first-team All-CHA selection, led NU defensemen with 21 points and finished his career with 56. The four-time All-CHA Academic Team honoree also is a dean's list student who plans to see where the pro-hockey road leads him before embarking on a business career.

"I think everyone's goal is to play at the next level," Oliveto said. "It's definitely something I want to do. I always had hope but I wasn't sure [I'd be able to]. That's why I focused on school just in case hockey didn't work out.

Oliveto said it was great playing for Reading.

"Hopefully it'll set me up well for next year," he said.

Burkholder called Oliveto "a very mature kid, very focused."

"He's going to be successful in whatever he decides to do," the coach said, "and I'm glad he's giving [pro hockey] a shot."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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