The best college hockey rivalry nobody (or, better stated, nobody beyond Western New York) has ever heard of served up another memorable chapter tonight as Niagara defeated Canisius by a 3-2 margin at the Buffalo State Ice Complex.
What this contest may have lacked in crispness and mid-season precision was more than made up for in a spirited effort by both teams. Niagara answered the call in the third period, down 2-1, and resurrected their power play for the final two goals to earn an emotional victory.
“This absolutely was a team building game,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said.
“They (Canisius) always seem to be fired up when playing us. I wanted our team to know that this was the biggest regular season game we would have. It was huge test being down after the second period, but we persevered and got it done.”
“This was a good college hockey game,” Canisius coach Dave Smith remarked. “I liked our goaltending, our defense and our power play. It was tough losing Dave Kasch (five minute major in the third period) for that amount of time. But Niagara played well and if you came here tonight I think you would have been very happy.”
Canisius opened the scoring when sophomore Mike Ruberto surprised Niagara goaltender Jeff Van Nyanatten with an ice-level backhander that slipped through the Purple Eagle goalie’s right pad. Ruberto played an outstanding game and his first tally stoked the Griffs confidence.
“I had the Niagara guy (Dan Sullivan) hanging all over me, Roberto said. I just held the puck as long as I could and I know the goalie wasn’t expecting me to shoot.”
Niagara evened the score early in the second period when Jason Williamson put back a rebound off the hard work of linemate Matt Caruana.
Midway through the second period, Canisius thwarted Niagara on several power plays and gradually took the momentum away from the Purple Eagles. Niagara has committed to a different power play look this year, using a dedicated unit instead of rolling lines, but their point men seemed tentative in getting the puck to the net and they failed to filter down into the high slot to capitalize on rebounds.
Canisius was rewarded for their efforts as the period drew to a close. Again Mike Ruberto made a heady play behind the Niagara net when he refused to surrender the puck. Lacking an open linemate to feed, Ruberto deftly shot the puck from an off-angle and followed up his rebound for the goal.
Niagara finally broke through with an extra attacker at the beginning of the third. Williamson returned the favor to Caruana, finding him open deep in the Griffs zone and the Niagara sophomore jammed home a shot to even the score 2-2.
Caruana, the Purple Eagles second line centerman, provided a perfect counterpoint to Niagara’s top center Les Reaney, who logged a tremendous amount of ice time during the game. Reaney and Caruana provide Niagara with a very promising 1-2 punch in the middle and they proved it tonight, as they were involved in most of Niagara’s scoring chances.
Williamson later followed that key moment by taking a tough hit from behind by Canisius center Dave Kasch. Referee Brian Panek whistled Kasch for a five minute major and a game misconduct.
Niagara’s Sean Bentivoglio capitalized by one-timing the game winner on the advantage. For the Purple Eagles, the long awaited rematch with the Golden Griffins had finally swung their way.
“We made an adjustment on the power play between the second and third period,” Bentivoglio said. “We needed more movement instead of just sitting back looking for the one shot. We just needed to outwork them and in the third period and we did it.”