By Canio Marasco
The legendary rivalry between Canisius and Niagara will be renewed in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Hockey tournament this weekend at HARBORCENTER.
Since Canisius finished first in the AHC, the Griffs earned a first-round bye in the tournament. The Purple Eagles, who finished last in the 11-team conference, drew the RIT Tigers in the first round. Despite being the underdog, Niagara beat the Tigers in a best of three-game series, 2-1.
The Purple Eagles won the first game 5-4, scoring a shorthanded goal with 10 seconds left in the third period to seal the first of two shocking wins. The Tigers responded with a strong performance in the second game, shutting out the Purple Eagles 5-0, pushing the series to a decisive third game. In the final game, the Purple Eagles came out quick netting two goals in the first period. Although the Tigers narrowed the gap in the second period with a goal of their own, the Purple Eagles advanced to the next round of the playoffs after scoring two goals in the final period.
With the upset, the Purple Eagles confirmed that they would travel to Canisius to play the top seed in the tournament.
The Griffs played the Purple Eagles four times throughout the regular season, sweeping the season series. Canisius in all four matchups scored at least four goals while allowing fewer than two goals.
With the success in the regular season, the Griffs head into the series with the Purple Eagles as the decisive favorite.
“The confidence that we gained during the regular season is very important,” said head coach Dave Smith on the Griffs’ mindset heading into the series. “We know that we can win games in the weekend… We have what it takes to win two games, which is the situation ahead of us. We’ve had success against Niagara, which maybe counts a little bit, not a lot.”
“I think our success against them in the regular season should give us confidence,” senior captain Geoff Fortman added. “As they showed RIT, the playoffs are a whole different animal. My experience in my four years is that as soon as the playoffs start, it’s a whole new season. We’re confident because we finished first and we know we can beat anyone.”
As Fortman affirmed, when the playoffs begin, it’s a whole new season. This is evident in special teams for the Purple Eagles, which were a decisive factor in last weekend’s series with RIT. Niagara netted two shorthanded goals in the first game of the series before scoring a power play goal in the series finale.
Although an impressive performance, the success of the Purple Eagles’ special teams in the first round series is contrary to their performance in the regular season. The Purple Eagles took 206 penalties this season, allowing goals on 22.3 percent of their opponents power plays. The Griffs, for comparison, only took 160 penalties, while allowing goals on just 12.5 percent of the opposition’s power plays. The Purple Eagles scored on 12.5 percent of their power plays, while the Griffs scored with the man advantage on 20.5 percent of power play opportunities.
“Special teams will have an effect on the series,” said Coach Smith. “Against RIT, Niagara had two shorthanded goals to help them win the first game of the series. They shut down the RIT power play and their power play scored a goal on the weekend, so it will absolutely have an impact. We’re confident in both of our units, but we still have to perform and execute in those situations.”
The Purple Eagles bucked another trend in their first round performance, scoring at an increased rate. During the season, the Purple Eagles scored an average two goals per game while allowing four.
Before Niagara’s playoff tilt with the Tigers, the Purple Eagles allowed 10 goals while scoring nine. With the gain in offensive confidence from the series win over RIT, limiting the Purple Eagles’ scoring opportunities will be an area of focus for the Griffs.
“I wouldn’t call it a concern, but it’s absolutely something we need to watch out for,” Fortman stated. “We’re confident in our defense, and our defensive ability as a team, but they’re a team that’s playing aggressive, and after last weekend, they’re also playing confidently on offense. I would say it’s a healthy challenge that I believe we can answer.”
As Fortman stated earlier, the playoffs are a whole different animal. The Purple Eagles are a testament to that statement. A team that struggled to score at even strength and create chances through special teams won a series because of those two aspects. The Griffs are playing a team with extreme confidence. So are the Purple Eagles after playing their best hockey of the season last weekend.
“When you play a team is really important; ending somebody’s season is very difficult to do and Niagara did that last weekend against what we think is a very good RIT team,” Coach Smith said. “Niagara’s confidence will be higher than when we played them previously. The ‘do or die’ of a playoff series brings out heightened emotion.”
The Griffs, still carrying the nation’s best unbeaten streak, will put it on the line this weekend as they begin their bid for an AHC championship against their archrivals.