A season on the brink: Canisus, Niagara face off in Rochester
blog by Ben Kirst • March 22, 2013 @ 7:00am
Talk about drama: two bitter archrivals—one a nationally-ranked powerhouse, the other a scrappy underdog—battling for a shot at the league title and one of 16 spots in the national championship tournament in a one-game, survive-and-advance showdown.
If one-seed Niagara beats seven-seed Canisius on Friday in the Atlantic Hockey Association playoff semifinals at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, the Purple Eagles (23-8-5) move onto Saturday’s title game against either Mercyhurst or Connecticut. The conference champ earns an automatic berth in the men’s ice hockey NCAA Division 1 tournament in Pittsburgh.
If the Golden Griffins (17-18-5) win, however, their Cinderella run through the Atlantic Hockey playoffs will continue for at least another day. After notching four consecutive playoff wins to dismiss Bentley and Air Force, a victory over Niagara would position Canisius for a shot at the first NCAA tourney appearance in program history.
“We’ve kind of had the underdog role the whole way through the playoffs,” said Griffs forward Kyle Gibbons, who was recently named as a third-team Atlantic Hockey all-star. “No one has picked us, and we’ve swept so far. That’s fine with us. That’s motivation for us. We use that to our advantage. The pressure is more or less on the other team to blow us out, do whatever the critics think, whereas for us, it’s just like, ‘let’s go win a game.’ We’re playing for everything, but we kind of have a nothing-to-lose mentality.”
Easily the top team in Atlantic Hockey for the entire season, the Purple Eagles swept through the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals after enjoying an opening round bye. The regular season conference champs are tied for ninth in the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings—a system created to mimic the NCAA selection formula—and are ranked in both the USCHO.com and USA Today / USA Hockey national polls. All things considered, Niagara should still sneak into the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection despite a loss on Friday.
Not that it is guaranteed. Atlantic Hockey has only sent an at-large team into the NCAA tournament twice. The Purple Eagles’ two losses to Air Force in the final weekend of the season and Atlantic Hockey’s weak PairWise stats may loom large if Canisius or Mercyhurst / UConn pulls an upset. A pair of weekend wins would prevent Head Coach Dave Burkholder’s crew from sweating out the at-large announcements at 9 p.m. on Sunday.
For the Griffs, a loss certainly means the season is over. The resume simply isn’t strong enough to entertain notions of an at-large bid. But Canisius—after struggling through a 3-8-0 stretch from mid-January through the end of February—has been red-hot since the final weekend of the regular season. The Griffs swept RIT in a two-game series in the final weekend of the season to secure seventh place in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs, dismissed Bentley with two consecutive wins in the opening round and sent home a powerful Air Force squad with a pair of heart-pounding victories in hostile Colorado Springs.
The growing pressure could have killed some teams. Canisius, on the other hand, has blossomed.
“I believe that the biggest growth area in this particular team this year has been the consistency of our emotions. We are taking our energy from passion, not from emotion,” Head Coach Dave Smith said on Tuesday. “As an athlete, you’re really just going out to make the next play. And the pressure, while I know its there, I really think it takes you to new heights. The simplicity with which you want to play is emphasized.”
After struggling mightily on offense for much of the season—the Griffs were shut out five times before the new year—Canisius has been much more productive during their six-game winning streak, which marks the team’s most successful run since the 1999-2000 season. Led by Gibbons and his 36-point campaign (18 goals, 18 assists), the Griffs have scored 24 goals in the last six games after lighting the lamp just 19 times in their previous 10 contests.
The goal-scoring surge finally gave consistent support to the nation’s 11th-ranked defensive unit and junior goaltender Tony Capobianco. In his first full season as starting netminder, Capobianco posted a 2.35 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He is 4-0 in the playoffs with a 1.74 g.a.a and .958 save percentage, and set a school record with 50 stops against Air Force on Saturday. Capobianco is 33 saves away from the conference playoff record.
“I’m definitely feeling confident,” Capobianco said with a sheepish grin on Tuesday. “I think the RIT series—just to get that first win (after a five-game losing streak), even though I let in five goals against—just to get that win and that feeling of winning again, really helped. From there, it’s been carrying over to every game. Our guys have been preparing great for each game. We’ve been stepping up to the plate each time, and the stakes are getting higher and higher each time. Going to Air Force and winning—we’ve had success against them before, and it’s literally been down to the last minute in some of those games. It’s very nice to get those bounces our way.”
One save that Capobianco did not make, however, came on Feb. 9 at Dwyer Arena in Lewiston. Locked in a ferocious 0-0 tie on Niagara’s home ice, Capobianco was beaten late in the third period when Purple Eagles winger Ryan Murphy, skating hard at the Canisius blue line, corralled a saucer pass launched from deep within the Niagara zone and cut in from the left wing on net. Murphy snapped a sharp backhander over the goaltender’s left shoulder for what would be the deciding goal in a 2-0 win.
The suddenness of Murphy’s tie-breaker and the sting of the loss stayed with the team.
“It bothered me after the game,” Capobianco said. “Just talking about it, thinking about it. We had chances either way. It was a really tight game. (Murphy) might have just slipped my focus for a moment because I thought (the pass) was going to go as icing. So I’ve got to stay sharp.”
“It was an unfortunate bounce,” added defenseman Ben Danford, “but that’s just the way it happened. I don’t know, you just got to let that one go and move forward. It wasn’t that one play that defined the game. We had chances to score—we had a five-on-three in the third that we should have scored on, and that play didn’t really define why we lost that game.”
Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak earned one of his D-1-leading six shutouts in that hotly-contested contest. Chubak has been nearly unbeatable in net, posting a 23-5-5 record while allowing an average of 1.84 goals per game—fifth best in the country—and recording a .941 goals-against average. Chubak was named to the first-team Atlantic Hockey All-Conference team earlier this week. (Update: Chubak was named Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year on Thursday night. In addition, Burkholder was tabbed as AHA Coach of the Year and Marc Zanette was selected as the conference’s Defensive Forward of the Year.)
That solidity in goal has allowed the Purple Eagles to dominate. Niagara clinched the regular season Atlantic Hockey crown in mid-February, posted a 15-0-2 record at Dwuer Arena and boasted the nation’s 14th best offense at 3.11 goals per game. Senior forward Giancarlo Iurio missed a significant portion of the season with an injury and still earned first-team Atlantic Hockey All-Conference honors while scoring a team-high 19 goals. Junior winger Ryan Murphy had 15 goals and 20 assists, while senior forward Marc Zanette collected 10 goals and 17 assists.
Defensemen Dan Weiss and Kevin Ryan were named to the second- and third-team All-Conference teams, respectively.
The Purple Eagles took the season series from Canisius, winning two of the teams’ three match-ups. Niagara, however, scored four total goals in those two wins—one of which was an empty-netter—and were shut out once by Capobianco. The Griffs managed just two goals on Chubak in the three games, and added an empty-net goal in their 2-0 win on Feb. 7.
Canisius, for what it may be worth in a do-or-die game, has the statistical advantage on special teams. The Griffs have the second-best penalty kill in the nation, snuffing 90.6 percent of opponents’ power play opportunities. Canisius is also surprisingly efficient with the man advantage, scoring on 17 percent of their chances—30th in the country, better than the 36-ranked Purple Eagles.
Come Friday, all of that goes out the window for 60 minutes. May the best team win.
“I don’t know if any of the guys look at it as a pressure-filled situation,” Gibbons said. “I like to look at it as another game. Another game, another chance to have fun, another chance to go play the sport you love. I think a lot of guys have been looking at it that way. You can kind of feel when there is a lot of nervous pressure—you could kind of feel it in the second game at Air Force, just because of the situation—and as a person, you kind of know how heavy the situation is. But I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of pressure. It’s going to be fun.”