BUFFALO, N.Y. — The beat went on for Niagara on Friday night as the visiting Purple Eagles rolled their Atlantic Hockey archrival Canisius 2-1 in front of a raucous crowd of 1,572 at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
Niagara (7-2-3, 6-0-0) is undefeated in its last eight contests (6-0-2) — the second-longest streak in the country behind Boston College’s current nine-game roll. The Purple Eagles have a two-point lead in Atlantic Hockey on second-place Holy Cross.
The Crusaders open a two-game home stand with the struggling Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday.
Scorching-hot junior goaltender Carson Chubak recorded 31 saves in the win, his seventh of the season. Chubak leads the nation with a goals against average of 1.08 and a save percentage of .966. He is tied for first in shutouts with four and came within a second-period tip by Golden Griffins (2-6-3, 1-2-1) winger Doug Beck from recording his fifth.
“He’s our hardest-working kid Monday through Thursday, so you get what you deserve,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think his confidence — confidence is everything with goaltending. From the first day of training camp, he’s been our best goalie, and he’s just taken it from there.”
The Purple Eagles jumped to an early lead at 5:09 of the first period when junior forward Ryan Murphy roofed a shot from the right circle over Canisius netminder Tony Capobianco.
Niagara then took a 2-0 advantage in the second period after Capobianco juggled a soft wrister from the point by Eagles defenseman Dan Weiss, allowing sophomore winger Michael Benedict to stuff the puck inside the right post at the 13:01 mark.
Capobianco, ranked among the country’s top 25 goalies in goals against average (2.30) and save percentage (.925), finished with 21 saves. He stopped a penalty shot by Benedict with 4:42 left in the contest and made a number of difficult saves to keep the contest close.
“I thought he played well,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “Obviously, that’s a huge save on the penalty shot. I thought he played well.”
Chubak and the Niagara special-teamers turned Benedict’s goal into the winner, killing three penalties over a 17:56 stretch from the late second period into the third. The Griffs — an offensively challenged bunch that has connected on just three of 36 power-play opportunities this season, sixth-worst in the nation — moved the puck well but were stymied by a defensive corps led by the omnipresent Weiss, a senior blueliner who finished the game with three blocked shots.
“I thought [Weiss] was a man in the third period,” Burkholder said. “We called our guys out in the third and said, ‘whatever it takes.’ That’s our motto, and as a senior captain, I thought he worked really hard.”
“Our penalty kill has been great all year,” Weiss said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been taking a lot of penalties, and we’ve been trying to work on that. We work on [penalty killing] really hard in practice, and I think it all comes down to everybody bearing down, getting pucks out and selling out whenever they have to.”
There is no love lost between these two schools. The Western New York neighbors annually square off for bragging rights in the Battle of the Bridge — the winner is based on whose various teams rack up the most head-to-head victories throughout the year.
The Griffs and Eagles have faced each other on the ice four times a season since 2010-11, when Niagara and Robert Morris joined Atlantic Hockey after the CHA dissolved.
The Purple Eagles — whose vocal contingent of fans dominated the noise in the arena at times on Friday — are 5-2-1 against the Griffs since joining Atlantic Hockey.
“That was probably the most intense game we played all year,” Chubak said. “Crazy stuff happens when we play them. They’ve gotten us a couple times, but we were glad to get them tonight.”
“It’s that cliche, the crosstown rivals, but we definitely practice a little bit harder and try to stay a little more focused in those weeks when we’re playing Canisius,” Weiss added. “[The rivalry] is definitely there. It’s a battle that we’ve fought before, and I’m glad that tonight we got the win.”
Chubak — who had a 300:19 shutout streak dating to Oct. 20 snapped last week in Niagara’s 4-1 win over Army — and the Purple Eagles begin a four-game home stand on Saturday at Dwyer Ice Arena in Lewiston, N.Y. with an Atlantic Hockey matchup with Robert Morris. The Colonials are 3-2 in conference play and have been resting since beating Canisius in Buffalo last Friday.
“I saw them play against RIT on television, they had a good game, won 6-4 or something,” Chubak said. “We know they’re going to bring their game. They’re from the old CHA, so it’s really a rivalry game again. I’m sure the fans will be looking forward to that, and I know we will be, too.”
The Griffs take a weeklong break before hosting American International for a two-game series beginning Nov. 24.
Does Smith — whose goal-hungry team has come tantalizingly close to wins over powerful Western Michigan, Minnesota and Niagara — spend any time thinking about how Canisius’ season could have been heading into the Thanksgiving holiday?
In a word: no.
“I like that we’ve established some chemistry,” Smith said. “I like that we’ve established a vision. Now, it’s just repeating that over and over and over. I think that we have 22 league games left. We just have to keep improving.”