BUFFALO, N.Y. — Even as the Canisius offense starved through a bleak opening to its 2012-13 season — a meager 25 goals in its first 14 games and five shutout losses before the end of December — there was always at least one bright spot: junior goaltender Tony Capobianco.
Capobianco allowed a total of six goals in three early-season losses to top-ranked Minnesota and sixth-ranked Western Michigan. He allowed eight goals against Atlantic Hockey opponents over a 4-1-1 stretch from Nov. 10 to Dec. 1 that buoyed a young and shaky Golden Griffins squad. He’s anchored a Canisius defense that has been nationally ranked in the top 10 for much of the season and a penalty kill that leads the conference.
Capobianco shined again on Thursday night, earning his second shutout in three games and outdueling ace Niagara netminder Carson Chubak as the Griffs earned a crucial AHA victory over the archrival Purple Eagles, 2-0, at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.
Capobianco made 35 saves in the victory, holding fast as Canisius was outshot 25-6 by 15th-ranked Niagara over the final two periods. He now has 10 wins on the season as well as a 2.11 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage against conference opponents.
“The ‘D’ did a good job boxing out [and] guys were playing hard in front of me,” Capobianco said. “A couple big blocked shots where I didn’t see the puck helped a lot and if there was a rebound there, they just got it away.”
“I go back — it’s been two months now since I really challenged Capo to go from good to great,” Griffs’ coach Dave Smith said. “And sometimes, those [big] saves are at 0-0, sometimes they’re when we’re up 1-0, and he made them all today, and he’s played that way all year. Hopefully, he continues to do it.”
Canisius came out of the gate with gusto, labeling 16 first-period shots on Chubak. The Hobey Baker candidate, who ranks among the nation’s top 10 goaltenders in goals-against average, winning percentage and save percentage and also leads Division I hockey with five shutouts, stood firm until the second period when Griffs winger Ryan Bohrer whipped a rising shot from the right circle through traffic that beat Chubak at 15:14 of the middle stanza.
Bohrer’s tally, scored with Niagara forward Hugo Turcotte in the penalty box, gave Canisius its fifth consecutive game with a power-play goal.
“The Niagara guy came out pretty hard on [Griffs' defenseman] Chris Rumble at the point and I was over in the slot,” Bohrer said. “He just passed it over and I knew there were some guys in front, so I just shot far side and it went in. I didn’t even see it at first.”
The Bohrer goal also came after the Griffs killed three consecutive second-period penalties, including a 1:19 five-on-three power play delivered to the Eagles after Bohrer and Rumble were tagged with hooking calls at 4:02 and 4:43 of the second period, respectively.
“That’s [Niagara's] speed,” Smith noted. “It puts you on the defensive a little bit, but we had to battle — we had to battle hard.”
The Eagles finished 0-for-7 on the power play in the game.
Sophomore winger Cody Freeman knocked home an empty-netter with 51 seconds remaining in the third period to ice the win.
Niagara had entered the game flying high, posting a 16-1-2 record in AHA play prior to Thursday night. Last weekend, the Purple Eagles rolled over a high-scoring Bentley squad in a pair of weekend wins. Forwards Marc Zanette and Patrick Divjak had collected a combined 18 points in the previous seven games.
The Griffs’ trio of Mitch McCrank, Preston Shupe and Tyler Wiseman did well to keep Zanette, Divjak and linemate Ryan Murphy — responsible for 61 points between the three of them this season — off the score sheet.
“Mitch McCrank has an elite hockey IQ, Preston is excellent defensively and Tyler’s got a lot of quickness, so we liked that matchup,” Smith said. “When it was natural, we tried to take that.”
Capobianco did the rest, stoning winger Ryan Rashid with a glove save at 12:17 of the second period when the big forward suddenly popped free behind the Canisius defense, shutting down Turcotte on a shorthanded breakaway at 15:10 of the third period and holding a hard shot from defenseman Kevin Ryan with 2:08 left in the game.
“I think our guys were just staying with them, skating with them, getting good body positioning,” Capobianco said. “Our guys weren’t letting them get in the zone too much. For the most part, we were just taking it to them in the third period.”
Despite the fact the Eagles, whose 34 points still have them positioned nine points ahead of second-place AHA contender Mercyhurst and the seven-point mess that separates nine teams (including Canisius, wedged in a three-way tie for third place with Air Force and Holy Cross) from second to 10th place, Niagara coach Dave Burkholder was downright glum after the loss.
“We didn’t do anything well tonight,” said Burkholder, whose lineup was missing injured star Giancarlo Iurio for the ninth consecutive game. “Special teams was the difference in the game. They kept giving us power plays and we didn’t capitalize. We were passive. I don’t know — something about this rink, we don’t have our legs. No passion.”
Burkholder’s Eagles will not have to wait long for revenge. The Western New York neighbors will shift their battleground from Buffalo’s west side to Lewiston, N.Y., on Saturday when the teams face off again at Dwyer Arena on the Niagara campus.
Burkholder will be anxious for a better result.
“We weren’t gritty enough, we weren’t tough on pucks and we spent zero time at the top of the crease, which you have to do to score goals,” he said. “We’ve lost two of 20 games, so I should be a little more positive, but that’s a really bad effort.”