BUFFALO, N.Y. — Is it hyperbole to say that the Canisius Golden Griffins saved their season on Saturday night?
Probably — there are still 11 games and 22 points left in the Griffs’ Atlantic Hockey Association schedule. However, Canisius’ 4-2 home victory over longtime conference rival Mercyhurst at the Buffalo State Ice Arena on Saturday night allowed the Griffs (9-11-5, 8-6-2) to remain in the middle of a wild AHA horse race.
Canisius tossed a giant monkey off its back, too. The Griffs earned their first third period, come-from-behind win since March 12, 2011.
“When you have a young team, those games sometimes go against you,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “But we’ve gained some experience, and I know that we’re confident in the goaltender (and) the team defense, and there is a sense of calm and maturity with a group that is stronger than it was even a month ago.”
Still stinging from a pair of crucial AHA road losses at Bentley last weekend, the Griffs fell behind, 1-0, at the 3:26 mark of the second period when Lakers center Matthew Zay pulled a bouncing puck out of a scrum in front of Canisius goaltender Tony Capobianco and buried his eighth goal of the season.
Canisius answered on a power play at 16:35 of the second period with the first goal of freshman winger Ralph Cuddemi’s collegiate career, but the Lakers jumped back in front, 2-1, less than 90 seconds later when sophomore forward Ryan Misiak threw a seemingly innocuous shot from the left wing at Capobianco that the goaltender appeared to misread.
Talk about bad omens — despite the fact that the Griffs currently have the eighth-ranked defense in the nation, the team has been miserable in games decided by one goal or less (0-7-5) in 2012-13. Canisius had not rallied to win a game it had trailed after two periods in nearly two full seasons. The last time the Griffs recorded an overtime win was in 2010.
Rather than shrink, however, Canisius grasped the desperation of the situation.
“You know what? There absolutely was,” Smith said, when asked if his team felt pressure as the third period ticked away. “It’s something that we’ve talked about. That’s great, healthy pressure because it’s coming from us — our guys want to win every game. That desperation — you could feel it in the second period, in the first period. I don’t feel like we had our strongest opening, but that desperation, that pressure, is what drove us to play our best hockey.”
The equalizer came with a bit of controversy. At 13:14 of the third period, Griffs defenseman Doug Jessey fired a shot through traffic from the right point that winger Stephen Miller tipped with a waist-high stick past Mercyhurst goaltender Max Strang. Strang and the Lakers immediately protested, claiming Miller high-sticked the puck into the net, but the officials turned a deaf ear.
“It happened quick; we thought it might have been a high stick,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “The referees were emphatic that it wasn’t, and I trust the referees. So I’m obviously disappointed — we were in the position we wanted to be in going into the third period. I thought we had some real good opportunities to push it to 3-1. But we couldn’t do that, and give Canisius credit.”
Just 31 seconds later, Canisius took the 3-2 lead when sophomore forward Matthew Grazen redirected a Duncan McKellar shot around Strang.
“We went in on a three-on-two, and Gibby (forward Kyle Gibbons) had a shot from the outside, and it wrapped around, up to Duncan,” Grazen said. “I kind of came from that side, made a backdoor move to the front, and Duncan had a nice shot on net. I just happened to tip it.”
Were the Lakers shaken by the no-call on the Griffs’ second goal? Maybe — Gotkin did use his timeout immediately after the Grazen goal — but the veteran coach wasn’t quite buying that excuse.
“I don’t know if we were rattled,” Gotkin said. “Clearly, we were disappointed, to be sure. But yeah, those two goals came pretty quick.”
Canisius forward Preston Shupe collected an empty-net goal with 34 seconds left in the game to seal the 4-2 victory, his 10th of the season.
Shupe’s tally allowed the Griffs to exhale. The squad had relinquished a lead or surrendered a game-winning goal in the third period or overtime six times this season, posting an 0-4-2 record in those contests.
“It’s huge for our confidence coming down the stretch,” Granzen said. “We need some big wins, and these are going to be tight games. This was very, very big for us.”
Capobianco could have been the goat for Canisius after allowing the uncharacteristically soft goal to Misiak, but redeemed himself with a series of clutch saves in the final period, including a toe save at the right post on Mercyhurst forward Chris Bodo at 12:04 that would have given the Lakers a commanding 3-1 lead.
“I thought both goaltenders played really well,” Smith said. “I thought it was both goalies (who) either kept their team in it or kept it close or protected a lead when they had one. I thought our goalie did that. There were moments that he kept it at 1-0, and those saves are as big as when you’re up 3-2.”
Capobianco finished with 29 saves in the win.
Strang — who entered the game on a 5-1-0 streak over his past six games, including a 1.61 goals-against average and .954 save percentage during that stretch — stopped 25 shots in his fifth loss of the season.
The two teams — sibling programs on the shores of Lake Erie whose Cain-and-Abel relationship spans 72 meetings dating back to 1988 — will meet again on Tuesday in Erie to play a game originally scheduled for this past Friday, but which was bumped when a water main break shut down the Mercyhurst campus.
Since Mercyhurst and Canisius are tied in fifth place in the AHA with 18 points, a win would move the victorious team into a second-place tie with Holy Cross. A tie would create a four-way logjam for third in the conference with Air Force and Bentley.
With Niagara firmly entrenched in first place in the AHA, the pressure to earn one of the three remaining first-round conference playoff byes will remain intense.
“At this time of year, the practices are short and crisp, and the energy is high,” Smith said. “Right now, it’s about playing games that affect the standings. I like it a lot.”