BUFFALO, N.Y. — Holy Cross is waging a war of attrition on the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Since the new year began, the Crusaders (14-10-2, 10-7-2 AHA) have grinded through four AHA two-game series, earned four splits and contributed their fair share to the knock-down, drag-out brawl for playoff position in the middle of the conference standings.
The 5-1 win collected by Holy Cross on Sunday at the Buffalo State Ice Arena over Canisius on the heels of a Saturday shutout at the hands of the Golden Griffins (10-13-5, 9-8-2) may signal a turning point for the Crusaders. After struggling through a nine-game stretch in which the Crusaders’ high-powered offense scored more than two goals on just one occasion, Holy Cross hung five on a Canisius squad that ranks among the nation’s top defenses.
“It’s huge,” Crusaders’ coach Paul Pearl said. “As a coach, you got to point to four of them that happened within a foot of the crease. You can make all the great plays you want, but great goals only come along once in a while. If you’re gonna score goals, it’s going to be because you go to the net.”
Junior center Shayne Stockton scored two goals for Holy Cross and got the Crusaders on the board when he batted a point-blank rebound off an Evan Zych shot behind Griffs’ goaltender Tony Capobianco at 11:57 of the first period.
His second tally was more acrobatic. Moments after teammate Tim Driscoll gave Holy Cross a 2-1 lead at 17:16 of the second period, Stockton grabbed a loose puck near Capobianco’s crease, cut hard to his left and tucked a nifty shot into the narrow opening between the right post and Capobianco’s skate for the 3-1 advantage just 1:28 before the second intermission..
“He’s got great hands,” Pearl said. “He’s not blessed with great speed, but when he’s going — even at his speed, which isn’t the fastest — he’s a guy who can make plays at that speed. He has body control and he could tuck that puck in. [Capobianco] is a good goalie and Shayne found a space that was about the size of the puck to slide it in.”
Third-period goals by Karl Beckman and Rob Linsmayer completed the scoring for Holy Cross.
Capobianco stopped 28 shots in the loss, while Crusaders’ netminder Matt Ginn earned the win with 28 saves.
Junior winger Kyle Gibbons recorded the lone Canisius goal, a game-tying power-play wrister from the mid-left point at 5:07 of the second period. Gibbons now has 14 goals on the season, a three-game goal-scoring streak and has been credited with a point in nine consecutive games.
Disappointed by his team’s effort in the 3-0 shutout on Saturday, Pearl — who held an extended closed-door meeting with his team after the loss — was clearly pleased with his team’s response on Sunday.
“I just thought that last night we didn’t battle hard enough for pucks,” Pearl said. “It’s the battle of what my old high school football coach used to call ‘the battle of the last 15 inches.’ Are you going to go get a puck or are you just going to hope to get the puck? I thought we were really gritty tonight and you have to be against a very good team like Canisius.”
Holy Cross is currently tied with Air Force — who managed only one point in a two-game home series with eleventh-place American International — for third place in the AHA. Nine teams, however, are wedged within five points of second and fifth- in the conference.
The Crusaders will now face Sacred Heart in a home-and-home series next weekend. The Pioneers are mired not only in the basement of the AHA, but have also failed to win a game this season. Sacred Heart has the nation’s lowest-ranked defense, least successful penalty kill, largest scoring margin and are dead-last in combined special teams. The Pioneers even lost an exhibition to St. Thomas, a middle-of-the-pack Division III team.
Pearl, however, refused to take the competition lightly.
“I would respectfully disagree; I think Sacred Heart is a good team,” he said. “We had our hands full. We were tied late in the second period with them the first time we played them. C.J. [Marottolo] is a good coach and he gets those guys going. They’re tough.
“We can’t get too excited about today’s win. We can’t have peaks and valleys. We have to consistently continue to perform. Certainly, I think we’re just looking at the 16 points available on the table between now and the end of the season and we have to try to get as many as we can.”
Griffs’ coach Dave Smith, whose team is 4-4-0 in its last eight AHA contests, will face a formidable foe – despised archrival Niagara, the runaway leader of the AHA pack with 16 conference wins and 34 points.
“It would be hypocritical to think about anything other than the first night [of the series],” Smith said. “We’ve got eight games left and it’s so close. We have to take it one night at a time, one period at a time, one shift at a time. If we maintain that short-term focus, whether it’s our rivalry or not, it’s still two points. That’s what we’re going to key on — let’s be really good Thursday night.
“I really like our team. I know we can get points on any night.”