Your college hockey cheat sheet: Griffs go for glory tonight
blog by Ben Kirst • March 23, 2013 @ 10:14am
Maybe it wasn’t a huge upset—I’d argue that beating Air Force twice in a 24-hour period last weekend in Colorado Springs was a bigger shock—but last night certainly marked a major step for the Canisius men’s ice hockey program.
Canisius will now play Mercyhurst, who beat Connecticut, 4-1, for the right to advance to the NCAA tournament.
I could go deeply into the game notes, but Amy Moritz of The Buffalo News has already done a fine job of this in the Campus Watch blog.
Instead, with this hugely important game looming—the Griffs have never made it to the Atlantic Hockey finals before, much less the NCAA tournament—I’d prefer to offer this quick primer on local college hockey, just in case you haven’t been paying super-close attention (and judging by the attendance at Buffalo State Ice Arena for Canisius home games, a lot of you have not).
Here we go:
- There are five conferences in NCAA Division 1 hockey: the Atlantic Hockey Association, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Hockey East and the East Coast Athletic Conference. The Ivy League is a subset of the ECAC.
- The winners of each conference get an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA championship tournament, which is going to be held this year in sunny Pittsburgh. The rest are selected through at-large bids based on a careful formula including strength of schedule, strength of opponents’ schedules, strength of opponents’ opponents schedules (really), and so on. It’s not a bunch of dudes in a smoke-filled room.
- Canisius and Niagara both play in the 12-team Atlantic Hockey Association. The Golden Griffins have been there since the conference was formed in 2004, The Purple Eagles joined when their old league—College Hockey America—folded after the 2009-10 season.
- Niagara dominated the AHA this season, posting a 20-5-2 record and winning the regular season title. The Purple Eagles were 15-0-2 at home. They earned a first-round bye in the playoffs—each of the top four finishers in the conference get a pass into the quarterfinals. Once there, Niagara knocked out the Rochester Institute of Technology in two consecutive games to win their best of three series.
- On Thursday, goaltender Carsen Chubak was named Atlantic Hockey Association player of the year, Head Coach Dave Burkholder was named Coach of the Year and winger Marc Zanette was named Defensive Forward of the Year at the annual AHA banquet.
- The Purple Eagles entered Friday night’s semifinal ranked 14th in the country and tied for ninth in the USCHO.com PairWise Rankings, a formula used to emulate the NCAA selection process for at-large teams They beat Canisius in two of three matchups, although Niagara scored four goals in those three games—unfortunately for the Griffs, they only scored three.
- On Friday, the Purple Eagles kind of fell apart. After going up, 1-0, on a goal by first-team Atlantic Hockey all-star Giancarlo Iurio, about four minutes into the game, Canisius outscored the nation’s 14th-ranked offense, 5-2, the rest of the way. Winger Tyler Wiseman scored two goals and set up defenseman Duncan McKellar with a sweet backdoor pass for what would be the game-winner with 20 seconds remaining in the second period. Chubak—a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player—was not himself, and was harassed throughout the game by the swarming Canisius offense.
- Niagara still has a chance to make the NCAA tourney as an at-large team. The Purple Eagles fell to an 11th-place tie in the PairWise rankings after the loss. The at-large selections will be announced on Sunday night.
- It’s tough to score on Canisius. The Griffs have been ranked among the top 15 defensive units all season long. Their goaltender, Tony Capobianco, has quietly been one of the top performers in the conference. The penalty-killing unit, led by East Amherst native Matt Grazen, fellow forwards Preston Shupe and Torrey Lindsay, and blueliners Ben Parker, Duncan McKellar, Logan Roe, Ben Danford and Doug Jessey, have been absolutely stifiling
- The problem Canisius had faced was a lack of scoring—they were shut out six times this season and were 1-7-4 in games that were decided by one goal or less. This led to a choppy season and a 3-9-0 stretch from mid-January to late February that pushed the Griffs from challenging for one of the three spots behind Niagara in the conference standings (and that lovely first-round bye) and pushed them as low as ninth place.
- Just when things couldn’t get any worse…they got a lot better. Canisius swept a tough RIT squad in the final two-game series of the regular season, battling into seventh place and earning a home series for the first round of the playoffs with a 12-13-2 conference record. The Griffs summarily dismissed Bentley in two games in Buffalo. Canisius then went on the road for a two-game series at Air Force. The Falcons had won five of the past six AHA tournaments and were one of the hottest teams in the country. The Griffs won two in a row, each by a score of 4-3, the first coming when winger Kyle Gibbons scored with nine seconds remaining in the third period to seal the victory, the second on a McKellar goal in overtime. Nail-biters, yes, but victories nonetheless. Also: Canisius had been 0-5-5 in their last 10 against the Falcons.
- And that lack of scoring prowess? Apparently a thing of the past. The Griffs have scored 29 goals in this seven-game winning streak. Third-team Atlantic Hockey all-star Kyle Gibbons now has 38 points on the season (18 goals, 20 assists). The top line of Gibbons, Patrick Sullivan and Cody Freeman has 75 combined points. Canisius has shown depth, however, and nine Griffs made the score sheet in Friday’s win.
That brings us to tonight (whew!). Mercyhurst finished sixth in Atlantic Hockey this season with a 12-11-4 record in league play, and the matchup with seven-seed Canisius will be the first time two teams with such low seeds have made the AHA final. Mercyhurst is coached by Rick Gotkin, the protege of the Griffs’ man behind the bench, Dave Smith—Smith was actually on Gotkin’s staff when the Lakers won the AHA tournament in 2004-05.
Mercyhurst is led by junior goaltender Jordan Tibbett, who claimed the starting job, well, just yesterday after spending the season in a platoon with senior Max Strang. The Lakers have some deadly scorers—Ryan Misiak, Matthew Zay and Daniel O’Donoghue all had 30-plus point seasons, and Grant Blakely had 29. Senior Paul Chiasson adds leadership and even more scoring touch (27 points). Zay was the conference’s leading scorer and the team offense was third in the AHA.
It should be a good one! Game time is 7:05 p.m. at Blue Cross Arena. Tickets are available online. See you there.