WEST POINT, N.Y. — Greg Kealey is making an early case to be the inaugural MVP of the Atlantic Hockey championship.
Thanks to a two-goal, three-point performance for Kealey in the semifinals, the top-seeded Crusaders advanced, 4-1, past six seed Canisius Sunday. They will face Sacred Heart, the winner of Sunday’s second semifinal, next Saturday night with the winner heading to the NCAA tournament.
Kealey’s play wasn’t limited to offense. He proved why he was recipient of the league’s best defensive player award, no more so than when he blocked a shot in the game’s closing minutes with the outcome in the balance, then followed up firing a shot into the empty net to put the game away.
“We expect a lot out of [Kealey] and he answers the bell all the time,” said Pearl. “It’s not just the goals and the assists. There are little things to this.
“When it was 3-1 and [Canisius] was on the power play, he kept the puck in the corner and tied them up. Sometimes in some league the best defensive player award goes to a guy who didn’t quite make the all-star team but had a lot of points. That’s not the case here.”
Kealey defensive and physical play set a tone that was very critical to the game. Canisius, known for size and play along the walls, ran full steam into a Holy Cross team prepared to play the physical game.
“We wanted to make this a skating game but we knew [Canisius] would be physical,” said Pearl. “We did a good job of standing up to that and also playing a little bit of our game as well. ”
“We had a lot of trouble getting our forecheck going and getting physical,” said Canisius captain Rob Martin. “[Holy Cross has] a good defensive corps. They’re big, they’re strong and they’re fast. In the third period we started to match that and get things going a little bit but it was too late.”
Holy Cross got things going early scoring in the opening minute of an otherwise lackluster first period. After defenseman Marc Bianchi kept the puck in at the blueline, he tipped it ahead to Kealey. His shot deflected off Jeff Dams in front of Canisius goaltender Brian Worosz (21 saves) and went over the glove of the netminder for a 1-0 lead just 31 seconds in.
Though the physical play and the pace picked up in the second, scoring chances remained at a minimum. The Crusaders, though, took advantage of their best chance, scoring on the power play at 14:48. After winning an offensive-zone draw, J.R. Walker blasted a shot from the point that Worosz got a leg on but couldn’t control. An untouched Jonas Tomiuck simply pushed the puck into the open net to give Holy Cross a 2-0 lead through two.
Canisius, though, made things interesting in the third. Playing for their playoff lives, the Griffs applied sustained pressure at times and at 6:31 pulled within a goal.
Martin picked up one of the few rebounds left by Holy Cross netminder Tony Quesada (24 saves) and fired it home to give his team life.
The goal ended an impressive tournament shutout streak for Quesada, who hadn’t surrendered anything in his first 106:31.
With Canisius buzzing, a critical turning point took place midway through the period. A tripping penalty to Canisius’ Joe D’Urzo put Holy Cross on the power play. Besides taking away the Griffs’ momentum, a Kealey goal put the Crusaders back up by two and in control of the game.
“All of the Canisius guys followed James Sixsmith and Jeff Dams to the net,” said Kealey of the goal. “That opened up some room and Jimmy got a good look. Passed it right to me and I had an open net.”
“When we scored to make it 2-1, I thought we had them back on their heels a little bit,” said Martin. “When we took that penalty and they scored it took all of the momentum away.”
Canisius pressed late and pulled Worosz for the extra attacker, but the Holy Cross defense, led by Kealey, didn’t bend.
The loss ends an impressive weekend for the Griffs. Few expected them to make it past a tough Quinnipiac squad due to Canisius’ youth. But that same youth holds hope for the future.
“You can always look to the future,” said Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh. “We’re tying to improve this program any way we can. We’ll take this tough, but these are great kids and they know that the camaraderie and the life lessons learned certainly outweigh the wins and losses.”