The wrong time to struggle: Third period woes could still be a factor as AHC tournament begins

By Dominic Chamberlain

Sports Editor

 

Later tonight, the Niagara Purple Eagles will return to the HARBORCENTER to play the Griffs in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament; a venue that doesn’t bode well for the Griffs’ biggest rival.

The Purple Eagles are 0-1-1 inside the confines of Terry Pegula’s hockey Mecca. Earlier this very season, the Griffs beat the Purple Eagles 3-1 and then tied them two nights later 3-3.

In both games junior Shane Conacher and freshman Dylan McLaughlin had one goal and freshman goalie Simon Hofley got his first taste of the rivalry as he got the nod in net.

Those games happened on Jan 14 and Jan 16; a time when teams started to scratch and claw at every point possible, so they could better themselves in the standings. Ultimately the Griffs finished seventh in the AHC standings while the Purple Eagles finished in 10 th.

So now the stage is set; a best of three rivalry series to determine which team moves on and which team’s season comes to an end. The Griffs enter the series as the favorite, due in large part to their top three scorers of Conacher, Ralph Cuddemi and Ryan Schmelzer. But the Griffs also possess another advantage that the Purple Eagles don’t.

The Griffs ended their regular season against the AHC’s top team, the Robert Morris Colonials. Both games did see the Griffs allow six goals in two losing efforts but the games were certainly a lot closer than the box score indicates. In both games, the Griffs entered the third period down by only one goal. Neither of these games were a one sided affair.

Heading into the home-and-home series against the colonials, the Griffs fate was already sealed; they were too far behind the Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers for the fifth seed and the first round bye. The only moving in the standings the Griffs could do was jumping ahead of the Army Black Knights for sixth in the standings. That would have made the American International Yellow Jackets the Griffs’ first round opponents.

The Griffs still had a reason to play hard against the Colonials, a reason to take chances and that’s exactly what they did.

“The Saturday night game (against the Colonials) we pulled our goalie really early,” said Coach Dave Smith “We knew what the other scores around the league were. A close loss or a big loss really didn’t make a difference.”

The Griffs did what they could against the conference’s’ top team. It was a close game going into the third both times and a risk to overtake the Black Knights in the standings simply didn’t pan out.

Now the Griffs enter post-season play knowing for a fact that they can hang with the teams at the top of the conference.

“We played well both games (against the Colonials),” said freshman defenseman Cameron Heath, “We just got a little bit undisciplined, took a few too many penalties and they capitalized on them, they’re a good team. But we hung with them and the outcome could have been different.”

Even though the season ended on four straight losses for the Griffs, they seem to have some momentum heading into the post-season. They know what is in store for them against the Purple Eagles.

“They (the Purple Eagles) are a hard working team,” said Cuddemi, “Just like every other team in our league so we go to make sure we’re competing with them and do whatever it takes to get the wins.”

The “compete” is there for the Griffs. 10 times this season, the Griffs either tied or lost the game by one goal. Simply put they can keep the game close.

That fact however only speaks to a team’s defensive capabilities, to be successful you need to see consistent offensive production and all those ties and one goal losses show that the offense is still trying to figure out how to close out these third periods. Not a problem you want to have in the post-season.

“I don’t really know what goes wrong (in the third period),” said Cuddemi “We just got to make sure we close out every game. I don’t know if we’re just trying to do too much to try and close the gap but it’s just something that we have to work on.”

Cuddemi and his line-mates Schmelzer and Conacher are undoubtedly the force that will carry this team in the tournament. Conacher led the team with 40 points in the regular season, Cuddemi wasn’t too far behind with 38 points and Schmelzer had his best year as a Griff with 29 points.

It’s no secret within the AHC that the Griffs top line is good. The Purple Eagles will certainly have a game plan in place to try and handle them. That’s where the Griffs will need to see secondary scoring. Thankfully they have some of that from three of the team’s twelve freshmen. Heath, McLaughlin, and Felix Chamberland are the three players directly under the top line in points. McLaughlin has had a stellar first year with 24 points, Heath leads all Griffs defensemen in points with 13 and Chamberland has a knack for putting himself in the right position. He has generated numerous chances and has 13 points to show for it.

Heath leads all Griffs defensemen with 13 points. Photo Credit: Tom Wolf

Heath leads all Griffs defensemen with 13 points. Photo Credit: Tom Wolf

Coach Smith has done some experimenting as of late, breaking up the usual top line of Cuddemi, Conacher and Schmelzer but it’s safe to say they are the offense’s foundation and if the games do get tight down the stretch, expect to see that familiar trio on the ice.

“My thoughts on those guys is to just be themselves offensively,” said Coach Smith “And then commit to the details defensively. Shane is a plus 16 meaning he’s got the ability to play on both sides of the puck. If they do those things, they’ll play a ton, they’ll have an impact on the game offensively and defensively and they can carry the team as far as they want to carry us.”

Coach Smith clearly has confidence in the offense and he will need it with the goaltending position too. While he wouldn’t confirm Hofley as the starter, it’s safe to say Coach Smith will call upon his freshman netminder. Hofley has six more starts this season than sophomore keeper Reilly Turner. Hofley doesn’t have a great goals against average at 2.82 but it beats Turner’s 3.42. The save percentage is more respectable for Hofley at .918 and the fact that Turner has 10 losses to Hofley’s nine should make Coach Smith’s decision an obvious one.

Now that isn’t to say Turner isn’t a viable option. He does hold the only shutout of the season for the Griffs but it’s do or die time for the team and this season, Hofley is the more consistent option.

That’s what the Griffs have for Niagara. The Purple Eagles will bring a physical style of play to the Harborcenter; Coach Smith even described them as a “Very physical team.” The Griffs answer to that will be the home ice advantage. It’s rivalry hockey, both teams will bring the hits and the passion but the Griffs will have the majority of the arena cheering for them.

They may need it. “Anybody can beat anybody on any night in Atlantic Hockey,” Coach Smith said two weeks ago. You can’t underestimate the Purple Eagles but the fans can make it much more difficult for them.

“Playoff hockey you’re always going to be excited,” said Heath “maybe a little extra boils in the water now that we are playing Niagara. It’s going to be a competitive game.”

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