BUFFALO, N.Y. — Head coach Brian Riley’s Army squad has been one of the more interesting — and surprising — stories in the Atlantic Hockey Association this year, collecting five conference wins after earning just four victories overall last season.
If Dave Smith’s Canisius outfit continues to perform the way it has over the past six weeks however, the Golden Griffins (6-7-4, 5-3-2 in conference play) could be the next AHA underdog to steal the spotlight.
Canisius improved to 5-2-1 since Nov. 10 — including five AHA wins — with a commanding 5-1 victory over the visiting Black Knights (5-8-2, 5-3-2) on Saturday at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
“You know, we’ve seen games where we’ve played well and lost, played well and tied, and played not as well and won,” Smith said after the contest. “You just hope the ball bounces evenly over the course of the season. Right now, we’re seeing good legs and good confidence.”
Canisius outshot Army, 51-19, and scored five goals on Black Knights’ netminder Ryan Leets.
Leets had posted a 3-0-1 record with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage in his previous four AHA starts.
“We could have had a few more tonight; we were right there,” Smith said. “We were getting second chances. We were getting pucks to the net. A primary goal of ours is to outshoot the opponent. Now that (goals) are going in — and I remember saying this (earlier this season) — I’m not worried that we’re going to score, because we have some talent in our offensive end.”
The Griffs were led by senior winger Preston Shupe, who collected two goals and an assist, and sophomore center Matthew Grazen, who added a goal and an assist while winning 13 of 19 faceoffs.
“I’m happy for those guys to get individual rewards for team play,” Smith said. “Some guys were really feeling it tonight. That came out of team play. That’s our mark. We don’t have (former Canisius stars) Cory Conacher or Carl Hudson or Josh Heidinger, as we have in the past. But we have some talent, and we’re a team. And those guys — (Grazen and Shupe) are ultimate team guys, and I like it when ultimate team guys get rewarded.”
“You know, it’s funny,” Shupe said. “My flight actually got delayed and I missed the first two days of practice (after winter break) and didn’t work out, so I felt a little hesitant going into the game. But my linemates are good — Torrey Lindsay, Mitch McCrank, Matt Grazen when he’s out there with us. Those guys are great, and we create a lot of energy, and that led to a couple of pretty easy goals for me.”
The game initially tilted in Canisius’ favor near the six-minute mark of the first period when Army center Josh Roberts and Griffs forward Patrick Sullivan had a brief altercation near the Black Knights net. Roberts was nabbed for interference, and Sullivan’s post-whistle shove on Roberts earned him a minor penalty as well. The incident seemed to settle immediately.
Suddenly, Black Knights winger Andrew O’Leary rushed into the fray and cross-checked Sullivan, setting off a brief 10-man wrestling match that led to five-minute Canisius power play and an automatic disqualification for the Army freshman.
“They were going to get a penalty, and Andrew just went in and decided he was going to cross-check a kid,” Riley said. “I told him it was unacceptable. And you know what, we paid a price for it.”
Griffs forward Ryan Bohrer scored a power-play goal at the 9:46 mark, giving Canisius a lead it would never relinquish. Grazen netted the eventual game-winner three minutes later, and second-period goals by Shupe and Sullivan effectively sealed the deal.
Shupe added the final Griffs tally late in the final period.
The Black Knights gave Canisius nine power play opportunities on Saturday night — dangerous living for a team that kills less than 80 percent of its penalties and entered the game killing under 70 percent on the road.
“It seemed like half the game, we were short-handed,” Riley said. “We deserved those penalties. And when you have to kill penalties, you just never really get into a good flow. Guys who don’t kill are now not on the ice, and that makes it harder for them to be involved. But I do think our PK guys did a real good job tonight.”
Although the Griffs connected on just on one of the nine man advantages offered by Army, Canisius continues to make strides on offense. The Griffs are tied for 50th in D-I hockey with an average of 2.06 goals per game, which is actually an improvement, considering the team was shut out four times in its first nine games of the season.
“Everything we’re focusing on now is pucks to the net,” Grazen said. “I think we did a good job of that today.”
Griffs goaltender Tony Capobianco earned the win, stopping 18 shots. The junior goalie is now 10th in the nation in goals-against average (1.85) and eighth in save percentage (.939), helping to catapult Canisius into a fourth-place tie in the AHA with the Black Knights.
Not bad for a team with just four seniors in the lineup — but Smith isn’t paying close attention to the standings just yet.
“We’re one game past the third-way mark of the season,” he shrugged. “Talk to me in April and I’ll tell you how our year was.”
After a 3-1-1 stretch that pushed Army into the upper echelons of the AHA, the Black Knights have now lost two games in a row — not including a 6-2 exhibition loss to the Russian Junior All-Stars at West Point on Thursday.
Like Smith, Riley is taking the long view. Ten of Army’s 18 skaters on Saturday night were freshmen. There will be bumps in the road.
“It’s a long year,” he said. “It’s peaks and valleys. It’s all about trying to live in the moment and not worry about what happened in the past. You try to think about what you have ahead of you. Our guys — although a lot of them are young — we’ve played a lot of games. We’ve won some games, lost some games. I think we’ll come out (tomorrow) with a better effort than we did tonight.”
Canisius and Army will meet again on Sunday in Buffalo. Game time is 7 p.m.