Hockey sweeps Niagara, loses in Atlantic Hockey semis

By Canio Marasco

Sports Reporter

The nation’s longest unbeaten streak came to an end this past weekend when the Canisius hockey team lost to the Robert Morris Colonials in the Atlantic Hockey Conference semifinals.

        The Griffs advanced to the semifinals of the tournament after sweeping the Niagara Purple Eagles in a best-of-three game series.

        The Griffs opened the scoring five minutes into the first game of the series while on the power play. Sophomore defenseman Jimmy Mazza found the loose puck during a goalmouth scramble to give the Griffs a 1-0 lead. Canisius added onto their lead in the second period, as sophomore Dylan McLaughlin tipped in a shot from the point. The Griffs solidified the win with a goal from Nick Hutchinson in the third period, pouncing on a Purple Eagle turnover. Senior goaltender Charles Williams, with the help of solid defense, was able to record the shutout as the Griffs coasted to a 3-0 win.

        The Griffs entered the second game with a chance to punch their ticket to the AHC semifinals with a win over their rival. The first period ended scoreless, as the Griffs held a slight edge in shots, 11-7. The second period was very similar; both teams played cautiously, as neither side seemed to have a decided advantage. In the third period, the deadlock was broken as Canisius sophomore Felix Chamberland scored four minutes into the period. The Purple Eagles responded quickly, tying the game four minutes later. Assistant captain Ryan Schmelzer tipped in a shot from Mazza on the power play to give the Griffs the lead with 1:15 left. The Griffs were able to preserve the lead and secure the series clinching win.

        “Our confidence was really good,” Canisius head coach Dave Smith said on their series with the Purple Eagles. “We had to really work hard to beat Niagara and I thought that was excellent for us and a good stepping stone.”

        The Griffs drew the Robert Morris Colonials in the semifinals after Army defeated Mercyhurst in three games and Air Force swept Bentley in their respective series. The semifinals, contrary to the opening portions of the tournament, is just one game, with the winner advancing to the finals of the tournament.

        Despite winning Atlantic Hockey for the first time in program history, being the conference’s top seed, and earning a top 20 ranking for the first time since 2013, the Griffs didn’t appear so at all against the No. 4 seeded Colonials. The Colonials opened the scoring just under the halfway point into the game with a wrist shot that got past Williams, going between his legs. Robert Morris doubled their lead in the dying moments of the period, netting another goal. The Colonials continued their offensive onslaught, netting their third unanswered goal seven minutes into the second period.

The Griffs entered their potential final period of the season down three goals. Hutchinson gave the Griffs a glimmer of hope as he scored five minutes into the final frame. The comeback simply didn’t materialize however, as the Colonials restored their three-goal lead before adding two empty net goals, coasting to a 6-2 victory. They advanced to their third Atlantic Hockey championship game in the last five years.

        “I don’t think it’s because our defense was playing poorly. They capitalized on a couple mistakes. We made a mistake late in the first period and it ended up in the back of our net and that put us down 2-0,” Smith said on the Griffs’ defense. “We didn’t capitalize on our chances. The story of the game, the statistics that we keep, were in our favor. Robert Morris had timely scoring and timely saves. Those scenarios had been going our way and we had been able to take games into a place that was in our advantage. We weren’t able to do that.”

        The upset by the Colonials marked the end of the nation’s longest unbeaten streak at 17 games. The Griffs built their streak around several key aspects of their game: not turning the puck over, capitalizing on their scoring chances, and putting an onus on special teams. In the game against Robert Morris, those pillars crumbled.

        “It was devastation,” Coach Smith recalled on the feeling in the locker room after the loss. “When you lose your last game, and you had hopes for something beyond that game, you feel devastation. To get to the final, one of the teams was going to feel that. It’s very painful when it comes to a quick end.”

        Since 2009, the Griffs have won the AHC Championship once, which came in 2013. In that time span, the Griffs have made the semifinals five times, including this past season. They have gone 2-3 in their semifinal games.

This history is imperative when trying to understand why the team was so disappointed after their loss. Coach Smith has turned the program into a perennial power in Atlantic Hockey, with a chance to challenge in the conference tournament year in and year out.

Although the Griffs had an impressive unbeaten streak, they fell short of their ultimate goal: an NCAA tournament berth.

“Our guys, all season, talked about establishing a legacy of raising the standard and raising the program. They accomplished that,” said Smith. “Along the way, there are many little milestones, and then to finish first in the AHC for the first time ever, that a tremendous legacy. To be unbeaten for 17 games, that’s a tremendous legacy.

“With those things being said, I think everyone feels there was some unfinished business. We weren’t able to accomplish our ultimate goal of getting to the finals and winning a spot in the NCAA championship. As much as there’s a sense of satisfaction, and happiness for what we accomplished, there’s still a sense of unfinished business.”

 

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