BUFFALO, N.Y. — Canisius goaltender Tony Capobianco stopped 35 shots and the nation’s third-ranked penalty kill stifled the dangerous Bentley power play six times as the Golden Griffins earned a 4-0 victory in the first game of their Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal showdown.
Capobianco made a number of crucial saves from close range on the Falcons’ high-scoring forwards, although the most important stop came at the 3:29 mark of the second period.
Just 14 seconds into a 1:22 five-on-three power play, Bentley center Andrew Gladiuk unleashed a hellacious one-timer from the low slot that Capobianco anticipated perfectly, dropping to his knees to freeze the puck beneath his pads at nearly the instant the shot came of the freshman’s stick.
Instead of a tie game and a man-advantage for another 1:46, the Falcons were stuck with a faceoff.
“He got it off so quick, and he was in so tight, so I just kind of collapsed low, and then I felt it and kind of gave it a little extra squeeze,” said Capobianco, who earned a shutout in the first Atlantic Hockey playoff game of his career. “I thought it was going to go in. I was glad that it didn’t.”
Capobianco also set two single-season school records on Friday as his fourth shutout topped the previous record shared with five other Canisius goalies and his single-season save amount of 1,020 stops broke Dan Morrison’s record of 993.
Sophomore forward Cody Freeman’s goal five minutes into the second period would prove to be the game-winner in a tightly-contested battle between two teams that struggled bitterly in recent weeks.
Bentley (12-19-3, 10-14-3) closed the season winless in 11 of their final 12 games, falling to 10th place in the 12 team conference. The No. 7-seed Griffs (14-18-5, 12-13-2) posted a 3-9-0 record in Atlantic Hockey play from Jan. 18 through Feb. 23.
Canisius, however, swept a two-game series from the Rochester Institute of Technology last weekend and the Griffs — a dominant defensive team whose fortunes have been hamstrung by a frustrating tendency to disappear offensively for games at a time — entered the playoffs on an upswing.
“We felt really, really good about our focus,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “We had a lot of energy in practice this week. Even when we haven’t won games, when our energy is high, we’re right there. It wasn’t an easy game because of how well Bentley played. They can move the puck and have a lot of skill and their transition game was really on display at times tonight. I thought we had to make some adjustments and it takes a lot of energy to do that. It took a lot of maturity to make some adjustments in our game and the guys did that.”
Senior defenseman Ben Parker gave the Griffs some breathing room early in the third period when moving to the left point in a transition rush, he took a Patrick Sullivan pass and flung the puck through bodies at the Falcons’ net. With a flurry of bodies moving through the zone, goaltender Brandon Komm reacted slowly to the heavy shot, which beat him over the left shoulder at 2:26 of the final stanza for Parker’s second goal of the season.
Komm was credited with 32 saves in the loss.
Senior forward Preston Shupe closed the scoring for Canisius with a pair of third-period goals – a power-play tally at 15:09 and an empty-netter with 36 seconds remaining in the game.
A two-goal deficit would not necessarily be a deal-breaker for the Falcons, who are tied for 15th in the nation in scoring average with at over three goals per game. In the two teams’ second meeting of the season, Bentley reeled off four third-period goals on the Griffs en route to a 7-2 victory. Gladiuk and junior forward Brett Gensler — a 40-point scorer — are statistically among the top offensive producers in Division I hockey.
“We’re a team that can score goals in bundles,” noted Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “We should never be worried when we’re down two goals.”
Bentley, however, found itself in an uncharacteristic third-period parade to the penalty box. Over a 9:24 stretch of the period, the Falcons took eight minutes in penalties — all of which appeared to come in either retaliation or frustration as Capobianco (and, to be fair, his goal posts) denied their shots and the relentless Canisius physical presence sapped their ferocious speed.
“Unfortunately, we ran into some puck luck and a very hot goaltender,” said Soderquist. “Not getting through on that five-on-three in the second period was a backbreaker for us. I thought we had four phenomenal, grade ‘A’ scoring chances that either Capobianco made a really nice save or we just hit a pipe, couldn’t get it in, couldn’t hit the back of the net. Then it came down to a 20-minute game at the end and they wanted it more. They got what they deserved and we got what we deserved.”
Soderquist expressed his frustration at his team’s lack of judgement at key points of the final period in which his squad gave the officiating crew an opportunity to call penalties on judgement calls.
“They’ve got to know better,” he said, and then expressed disappointment that the way the game was called seemed to change as the clock wound down.
“I thought that the three, four calls down the stretch were things that were let go early in the game and then all of the sudden were called late in the game. Maybe a little inconsistency there, nothing but some pushes and shoves. In a playoff hockey game, you would expect that to happen.”
Smith noted that the Griffs had to be aggressive in order to knock the high-flying Falcons out of their deadly breakout game.
“Every single day,” Smith said. “Every single day. We talk about being physical and breaking their speed and their momentum. Even if you’re a speed bump, you slow them down and that’s important because they have a lot of tempo and pace to their game.”
The teams will meet again at 7 p.m. on Saturday with Bentley’s season on the line. Soderquist expects the situation to be self-motivating for a team that could use some sunshine after a long, hard winter.
“At this point in time, the message has to come from the locker room itself,” he concluded. “They have to make the decision on their own. If as men and as Division I hockey players, they can’t understand that if we lose, we go home and the season’s over — if they can’t respond to that, there’s certainly nothing I can say to them.”