By Canio Marasco
With a win against their archrivals, the Niagara Purple Eagles, the Canisius men’s hockey team extended their lead atop the Atlantic Hockey Conference and kept their 13-game unbeaten streak alive: the longest active streak in the country.
But before the Griffs played their rivals, they had to put the unbeaten streak on the line when they traveled to play the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Despite the Pioneers being in the bottom half of the AHC standings in the, they played two very tough games against the Griffs.
In the first game, the Pioneers opened the scoring 11 minutes into the game. The next goal wouldn’t come until twenty seconds into the third period, doubling the Pioneers’ lead and putting the Griffs’ unbeaten streak in serious jeopardy. But, as has been common this season, when faced with adversity, the Griffs battled back. Freshman Matt Hoover pulled the Griffs back within one, five minutes into the third. In the dying minutes of the game the Griffs pulled the goalie, and with an extra attacker on the ice, sophomore Cameron Heath was able to equalize with just over a minute left. In overtime each team only managed to tally two shots on net and the game ended in a 2-2 tie.
In the second game, an offensive duel would ultimately decide the winner. The Pioneer’s opened the scoring four minutes into the second period, but the Griffs would responded with three unanswered goals by Nolan Sheeran, Felix Chamberland and Jimmy Mazza. The Pioneers replied with a goal of their own to make it a 3-2 game just halfway through the second period. With five minutes left in the period Cameron Heath extended the Griffs lead to two, as they headed into the final period.
The third period had just as many twist and turns as the second. Dylan McLaughlin scored seven minutes into the period to make the Griffs lead, 5-2. However, the Pioneers scored two goals five minutes apart to make it a one-goal game in the dying minutes of the third. Jesse Pereira would add an empty net goal, but the Pioneers scored again with twenty seconds left before the game ended. But that was all of the scoring, and the game ended 6-5, extending the unbeaten streak to 12 games.
Coach Dave Smith, on the Griffs series against the Pioneers, said, “The standings are irrelevant almost always. Teams play hard, and teams play hard at home. Sacred Heart has a really good team. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead and we had to battle back hard. Then, the next night, I thought we played very well. We gave up a couple late… We were up 5-2 with ten minutes left in the game, and it ends up 6-5. But I was really happy with our response to adversity and our willingness to work and keep taking the game to an area that we want to play in.”
The Griffs’ most recent game was against the Niagara Purple Eagles, who are last in the AHC. The Purple Eagles started the game quickly, scoring just two minutes into the opening period on a goal mouth scramble. The Griffs responded with a goal from Matt Hoover halfway through the first. The second period was calm until the final five minutes. Geoff Fortman scored to give the Griffs a 2-1 lead, but the Purple Eagles replied with a goal of their own to make the game 2-2 heading into the final period. The Griffs took control of the third period and pushed for a decisive win. Maaza scored the game winning goal nine minutes into the period. Matt McLeod would add a decisive goal as the Griffs earned a 4-2 win and a 13-game unbeaten streak.
“It feels good because tonight we really had to buckle down and win the effort game,” Coach Smith said. “I thought that we had high effort in adversity… The other team was playing well, and we had a 2-1 lead and gave-up a goal, so we had to work back hard. It’s really hard win and, to me, that’s really a typical Atlantic Hockey game.”
Mazza, on what turned around the game, said, “Coach Smith came into the locker room and said we needed to be working harder out there. We had to earn everything. Niagara is a great hockey team… So, overall, we just went out there and started working harder and everything worked out for us.”
The nation’s longest active unbeaten streak is quite the feat. But, how the Griffs attained this feat is possibly more impressive. Before this streak started, the Griffs had several issues: they were giving up too many shots, their scoring was coming from only a few sources and the team relied heavily on Senior goaltender Charles Williams to win them games.
Coach Smith joked that the team knew they couldn’t simply tell Williams, “Charles, go stop the other team.” They knew that it would take a full team effort to turn around their defense and transition game.
The Griffs have also supported the stellar play of Williams by improving their depth scoring. In the beginning of the season, most of the Griffs offensive production came from Ryan Schmelzer and Dylan McLaughlin. Although the two players still lead to the Griffs in points, the team have found goals from other sources. Nick Hutchinson, Felix Chamberland, and Matt Hoover all have 18 points, while a myriad of other players have double-digit points this season. This means that if the line of Schmelzer and McLaughlin gets shutdown, there are now other players the Griffs can turn to for offense.
The combination of depth scoring and improved defense has culminated in a 13-game unbeaten streak. The Griffs’ next game is a rematch against the Purple Eagles as they put their first place spot and unbeaten streak on the line.