BUFFALO, N.Y. — Who’s going to fade first in the Atlantic Hockey Association?
Right now, the even money is on no one.
By the end of Saturday’s action, the second through tenth spots in the conference will be separated by a logjam of no more than eight points and theoretically, eight teams could be crunched within three points of each other.
Canisius did its part to keep the elevator to the three first-round playoff byes available behind runaway conference leader Niagara as crowded as possible on Saturday, knocking off Holy Cross 3-0 at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
“We all keep a good eye [on the standings], but it’s been so close, especially in the past three weeks,” said Canisius captain Preston Shupe. “It seems like every week, teams are splitting, teams are going from seventh to third, third to seventh, and it gets kind of hard to keep tabs on everything.”
The Golden Griffins (10-12-5, 9-7-2 AHA) were anchored by goaltender Tony Capobianco, who made 23 saves.
Capobianco, in turn, was buoyed by the commendable work of the nation’s sixth-ranked defense. Canisius shut down a Crusaders’ attack that entered the contest averaging 3.04 goals per game and held high-scoring senior center Kyle Fletcher without a point for the first time in five games.
“All of our [defensemen] kept it simple,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “I thought we moved the puck north, we got it onto the tape of our forwards very well and we were able to get out of our zone.”
Smith bristled when reminded that Saturday’s shutout came on the heels of a three-game stretch in which Canisius had allowed 14 goals — easily its most over any three-game sample of the season — while posting a 1-2 record, including a 5-2 loss at Mercyhurst this past Tuesday.
“Playing defense is something that is important to us, but teams [in the AHA] are good,” Smith shrugged. “Team are prepared. And sometimes, the bounces don’t go your way. Tonight, it was a close game throughout. We had to get some big saves from Capo and we had to get some big plays throughout. The league is so even that you’re going to have those times where you give up some more than you like and sometimes, you’re going to get rewarded with a shutout like we did tonight.”
The shutout — Capobianco’s second of the season — marked the first time Holy Cross (13-10-2, 9-7-2) had been blanked since a 7-0 loss to AHA rival Air Force last Nov. 3. The Griffs earned their first regular-season victory over the Crusaders since 2008, adding a second win to an otherwise dismal 2-8-1 record against Holy Cross over the team’s past 11 matchups.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, who held an extended closed-door meeting with his team after the game. Holy Cross averaged 3.4 goals per game and posted 10 wins through Dec. 31, the program’s best start in years. The Crusaders, however, have squeaked out less than two markers per game in the new year while stumbling to a 3-6 record.
Holy Cross clearly did not offer its best work in Buffalo on Saturday.
“We need to play more consistently,” Pearl said. “We’ve been too high and low over the past month. Give Canisius credit — they did a good job of getting back above the puck, they did a good job of taking away the middle of the ice, they did a good job of turning us over. But when I look just at us, we allowed some of that stuff to happen, too. We have to be grittier on pucks. We played in spurts where we had chances — and their goalie was good — but it wasn’t a consistent effort out there by our team.”
Shupe opened the scoring with what would be the game-winning goal at 4:07 of the first period. Freshman defenseman Chris Rumble’s shot from the right point deflected off the skate of a Holy Cross defender directly to Shupe, who was cutting from the right circle into the slot. Shupe collected the puck, swung around Crusaders’ goaltender Matt Ginn and stuffed a shot inside the right post for a 1-0 Canisius lead.
For a team that struggles to score more than two goals per game, a tally by Shupe has proven to be a good sign for the Griffs. Canisius is now 10-2-2 when Shupe — a senior with 33 career goals — collects a point and are winless in the 14 games in which he has been held scoreless.
“That’s kind of a weird one,” Shupe chuckled. “I don’t know if there’s too much of a correlation. I guess it’s a good thing. I’d better keep scoring.”
Griffs’ winger Kyle Gibbons — one of the hottest scorers in Division I hockey since a two-point performance against Rochester Institute of Technology on Nov. 10 jump-started what had been a scoreless start to the season — took over from there. Gibbons, a junior who entered Saturday with 19 points in his last 17 games, collected his 12th goal on the power play at 8:56 of the second period and then capped the scoring for the day with his 13th of the season at 13:25 of the second.
Gibbons’ 12 goals in 18 AHA games leads the conference.
“We really like our depth, top to bottom,” Smith said. “We’ve been tinkering here and there to try to improve our scoring without trying to disrupt the scoring that is there. I thought tonight that went pretty well.”
Neither team will have much of an opportunity to dwell on the result of Saturday’s game or to put too much thought into the way the AHA standings settled by the end of the night — situations simply change too quickly in Atlantic Hockey.
The Crusaders have split conference series with Mercyhurst, Niagara and Bentley over the past three weekends, while the Griffins swept Sacred Heart, were swept in turn by Bentley and split with Mercyhurst.
In the relentless race for the top four spots in the conference when the final horn sounds on the regular season, every weekend tightens the screw a little more on each team. Every weekend brings a new look at the math.
“We got good kids in there,” Pearl said. “They work hard. We’ll see what we can do about it tomorrow.”
“I’ll go home and celebrate tonight and I’ll say, ‘Yahoo, we got two points,’” Smith deadpanned. “I know how hard it will be to get them tomorrow. We know we’re going to get Holy Cross’ best effort tomorrow night.”