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New energy has Niagara hockey off to a hot start

If you want to understand the change that's happened for the Niagara University hockey team, take a moment to look at the stats. One stat in particular. Shots on goal.

Last year, the Purple Eagles ranked last in the country in shots on goal allowed per game. They gave up an average of 36.3 and were getting outshot by an average of 10.4.

This year, Niagara has turned that around. The Purps are in the top 15 in the country when it comes to fewest shots on goal against (tied for 13th at 25.83 per game) and best shot differential (12th at plus-7 per game.)

"It comes back to the time and effort guys are putting in to create offense," first-year Niagara coach Jason Lammers said. "I'm just a big believer in it's more fun to score than to play in your d-zone. We work really hard to spend a lot of time in the offensive zone and set up some strategies to do that."

The basic strategy can best be described in basketball terms: Niagara wants to put on a full-court press. It wants to put pressure on other teams.

And so far, it's been working.

Niagara is off to a 4-2-0 start, its best October since going 5-1 to start 2007-08, a season in which the team won the College Hockey America tournament and ensuing bid to the NCAA t

The team is 3-0 in Atlantic Hockey, the first time it's won the first three conference games of the season since 2012-13, the last glory year in Dwyer Arena. That was the last winning season for the Purple Eagles, a year they went 23-10-5 and earned Atlantic Hockey's first at-large bid to the NCAA tourney.

The program suffered a significant slide after that, winning 15 games in 2013-14 and just 15 combined over the next three seasons.

Niagara is just one win away from tying its win total from all of last season.

Lammers was an outside hire for Niagara, a hockey coach with no ties to the Purple Eagles but a great record as a junior coach with a passion for the game.

His enthusiasm has bled over to a group that largely remains unchanged from the last few seasons. And the players have responded, both on and off the ice.

"It's really about the guys' intentions and what they want to do, what they've set for their goals and aspirations," Lammers said. "We're really competing and making plays at this point. Away from the rink, the culture piece has really been impressive."

The players not only set hockey-related goals, but off-ice goals as well. They want a team grade-point average of 3.3 and have become regular participants in community service.

What does community service have to do with being a better college hockey player?

It turns out, plenty.

"The mission of the university is to serve others and when you do that, you get outside of yourself," Lammers said. "You realize you're not the most important person in the world and I believe that mentality really changes your perspective on life, but also as a hockey player and a student. Hey, we don't have to play hockey. We don't have to go to school. We get to play hockey. We get to go to school. You approach those things with a different passion."

The fresh perspective and new energy outside the rink has translated to better play in the rink. And it's given Niagara two player-of-the-week honors in Atlantic Hockey. Senior Derian Plouffe was honored for scoring two goals with two assists in the team's road sweep of Sacred Heart. Freshman Brian Wilson was named Atlantic Hockey's goalie of the week, earning his first two collegiate wins in the sweep. Over the two games he made 37 saves with a .949 save percentage and 1.02 goals against average.

Niagara begins November with four home games, hosting Bentley (Nov. 3-4) and Army (Nov. 10-11).

Meanwhile, Canisius is off to a solid start, including a key win over Air Force. The Falcons came to Buffalo last weekend ranked No. 18 in the poll along with being the preseason favorites to win Atlantic Hockey.

The teams split their series in HarborCenter, with the Golden Griffins scoring a 3-2 win on Saturday. Jimmy Mazza scored what proved to be the winner, shorthanded, while Simon Hofley made 24 saves.

The win by the Griffs knocked Air Force to No. 19 in the latest poll.

Canisius is 2-2-1 overall and has split its two conference weekends with Robert Morris and Air Force.

While Hofley got the win against the Falcons, sophomore Daniel Urbani has the better numbers. In three starts, Urbani is 1-1-1 with a .930 save percentage and a 2.29 goals against average.

The offense has been led by junior Dylan McLaughlin with eight points (three goals, five assists) in five games, while sophomore Nick Hutchison (three goals, two assists) and Ryan Schmelzer (one goal, four assists) both have five points.

The Griffs are on the road for their next four games, traveling to Sacred Heart (Nov. 4-5) and Mercyhurst (Nov. 10-11). They return to HarborCenter to host Bentley Nov. 17-18.

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