At the top of Atlantic hockey

By Canio Marasco

Sports Reporter

  1. That was the last time the Griffs were the champions of the Atlantic Hockey Conference. After a successful month and a five game unbeaten streak, the Griffs are now tied for first place in the conference and poised to fight for the championship.

 

Over the last month, the Griffs have went 7-3-4 overall. This impressive record includes a tough series against a ranked St. Lawrence team, as well as important conference series against Air Force, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), along with a single match with rival Niagara. Over the last month, the Griffs have played the bulk of their conference games. In these high pressure conference games down the stretch, they have picked up 12 out of the available 16 points in the conference, placing them in a tie for first place.

 

“I think we’ve kept our sights set on the target right in front of us,” Canisius head coach Dave Smith said. “The next opponent has been very important and now, aside from consistently good goaltending, we’ve added some depth scoring.”

 

The Griffs first games over the winter recess were against the Holy Cross Crusaders, an important series for two teams jockeying for position in the conference. In the first game, the Griffs wound up winning 3-0. After a scoreless first period, the Griffs tallied two goals in the first three minutes of the second period. Cameron Heath and Casey Jerry were credited with the goals for the Griffs. Almost 10 minutes later, Heath would tally another goal on the power play – a unit that will come to dominate for the Griffs in Atlantic Hockey. Goaltender Charles Williams continued his solid play, stopping all 30 shots he faced.

 

In the final game of the two game series with the Crusaders, Holy Cross would counter the Griffs’ 3-0 win with one of their own. The Crusaders were able to take a 1-0 lead nine minutes into the game on a 4-on-3 power play. The second period ended up being scoreless, before Holy Cross pulled away with two more goals in the third period. The Griffs were only able to take eighteen shots and couldn’t capitalize on their only opportunity with the man advantage.

 

The Griffs began to play their best hockey as they headed into a series with the St. Lawrence Saints, who were ranked 16th in the nation. In the first game, the Saints came out fast, scoring two goals in the first, looking like the superior team. The Griffs battled back scoring a goal just eight seconds into the second stanza. Despite the hot start, the Saints were able to restore their two goal lead. The Griffs continued to fight back, being able to equalize by the period’s end. Almost 30 seconds after the Saints regained their two goal lead, as Ryan Schmelzer was able to score to pull the Griffs back within one. Jesse Pereira was able to score the equalizing goal for the Griffs. The two teams battled to a tie after a scoreless third period and overtime.

 

In the second game, the Saints asserted their dominance. They controlled play through the first two periods, scoring a goal in each. The Griffs were able to score a goal 16 minutes into the third period, but it proved to be too late. The weaknesses of the Griffs were on full display – despite earning four opportunities with the man advantage, not being able to capitalize once. The Griffs also allowed 35 shots, compared to their 20, forcing Williams to try to keep the Griffs in the game.

 

“There were some positives to draw from it. We played well enough to earn two points on the Friday night, but didn’t,” said Coach Smith about the St. Lawrence series. “I think we left some points out there. I think our non-conference games this year serve a purpose in both confidence and allowing us to improve our game without effecting the standings positively or negatively. I thought that St. Lawrence did that.”

 

The Griffs next series was a critical match-up on the road against the Air Force Falcons, a team that was ahead of them in the AHC standings. In the first game, all the game’s action happened in the first period. Pereira was able to get to the Griffs on the board first with a goal three minutes into the game. The Falcons respond, tying the game almost seven minutes later. The Griffs poured on the offense scoring three more goals in a span of just as many minutes. The Griffs hung on for the rest of the game as Williams was forced to keep the lead alive. The Griffs were outshot 39-12 in the game, including 19-1 in the second period, but were able to thwart any comeback attempt by the Falcons.

 

In the second game, the Falcons came out fast, trying to atone for their loss the night prior. As Air Force poured on the offense, they were finally able to break through the Griffs’ defense and score with four minutes left in the opening period. Early in the second, the Griffs had an early chance on the power play. Despite the potency of the Griffs’ power play in the conference this season, gave-up a shorthanded goal extending the Falcons lead. Dylan McLaughlin was able to pull the Griffs back within one with a goal of his own five minutes later. The power play would make-up for allowing the short-handed goal allowed as Cameron Heath scored with the man-advantage early in the third period. Despite being heavily outshot 48-27, the Griffs were able to fight for a point tying with the Falcons, 2-2.

 

“We were the young team, and knowing that we can go on the road and play our game is probably the biggest lesson we can take away from [the series with Air Force].” Coach Smith stated. “To come away with three of the four points is a tough, but great accomplishment.”

 

After returning home from facing Air Force in Colorado, the Griffs headed into another important home-and-home series against the RIT Tigers. In the first game, on the road, the Tigers came out quickly, scoring a goal not even five minutes into the game. The Griffs would battle back, as Mike Sabatini and Schmelzer would score back-to-back goals in quick succession to start the second period. The Griffs preserved their one goal entering the third period before the Griffs were able to almost assure their victory as Felix Chamberland scored while on the power play. Again, despite being outshot 46-28, the Griffs were able to hang on for the 3-1 win.

 

In the second game, this time playing at HARBORCENTER for the first time in three weeks, the Griffs’ offense exploded for six goals in a 6-1 blowout win in the final portion of the home-and-home with RIT. In a somewhat edgy first period, with three minutes left, Sabatini scored the first goal of the game. In the second period, the Griffs broke the game open with goals by Schmelzer on the power play 50 seconds into the period before Nick Hutchinson scored two minutes later. The Griffs would round out the period with a goal in the latter stages of the period. The Tigers were also able to score their lone goal in the period, as well but couldn’t stop the Griffs’ offensive outpour. The Griffs scored two more goals in the final period to secure a season sweep of the Tigers, the first time that has occurred since the 2012-13 season.

 

The Griffs last game was against longtime rival, the Niagara Purple Eagles, on Tuesday. The Griffs, again, rolled to a comfortable win over an AHC opponent. The Griffs ended the first period with a 2-0 lead, as Jerry and Schmelzer added the Griffs’ tallies. They extended their lead to 3-0, as Matt McLeod scored with late in the second period. McLaughlin scored early in the third period to give the Griffs a 4-0 advantage before the Purple Eagles would score a consolation goal, giving the Griffs an easy 4-1 win.

 

The Griffs have gone 5-1-1 in their last seven conference games, shooting them up the standings and placing them into a tie for first place with Air Force. Despite these results, some issues have been apparent. They have been outshot by a very wide margin, 927-660, this season. Although they’ve been outshot, they have only been outscored 60-58 – a seemingly unsustainable stat.

 

“We had three consecutive games with over thirty-eight shots against…Half of the issue is what we do with the puck – where do we turn it over and allow the team to start their possession,” Coach Smith said. “The other half is how hard we defend in the three zones. Sometimes we give up a shot because of something that happened in the offensive zone. So, when we’re evaluating how hard we’re checking and defending, or taking away time and space, we’re looking at this in all three zones and all five player’s mentality.”

 

Although the Griffs have given up a large margin in shots, they’ve been able to rely on senior goaltender Charles Williams. In 18 games this season, he has posted an 8-6-3 record. Considering the high amount of shots he’s faced, he’s posted an astounding .944 save percentage, which is the best percentage in the nation and a 1.91 goals against average, the eighth best in the nation. Williams was also named the AHC goaltender of the week this past week, the fifth time he has been named to the honor this season.

 

“I’ve been really just trying to keep it simple,” Williams said. “Every night is tough in this league, and we all have to make sure we’re dialed in and ready to go. I just want to give my team the best chance to win and whatever that entails is what I try to do.”

 

To combat this difference in shot totals, the Griffs have been stellar on special teams. In the conference this season, they have scored 19 power play tallies, while only giving up eight. Felix Chamberland leads the team with eight points on the power play, followed by Nick Hutchinson, who has seven.

 

“There’s always something to work on and the power play is one of those things,” Coach Smith said. The most important special team for us is penalty kill. We spent a lot of time on it, and we’ve put a lot of physical and mental effort in it. And now the guys are proud of the results we’re getting. When you’re good on the penalty kill, everything that happens on the power play is a bonus – you’re not playing catch-up, you’re adding on.

 

“The power play has a lot of room to grow, we’ve been getting out-worked there, and the puck movement has been a little bit lethargic. We have some talented players on the power player, and they’ve been in sync, they just haven’t been capitalizing as much as we’d like.”

 

The Griffs still have a month left in their season, filled with many key conference games.

“The biggest thing is getting points every games. We need to play and game, flush it, and then play again,” stated Williams. “I think that’s our biggest thing – period by period we’ve been trying to keep our tempo and making sure that we put all our attention on the next game. I think that’s given us the best success over the past couple weeks.”

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