ROCHESTER, N.Y. — This year, Cinderella wears a Golden slipper.
Junior winger Kyle Gibbons’ four points tied a career high and the vaunted Canisius defense shut down the nation’s 14th-ranked offense as the surprising Golden Griffins (19-18-5) won the Atlantic Hockey playoff tournament with a 7-2 win over Mercyhurst at Blue Cross Arena.
The Griffs, who entered the postseason as the seventh seed, earned an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament — the first in program history. No seven-seed had previously won the AHA title.
2013 Atlantic Hockey Championship
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Gibbons earned the most valuable player award for the weekend, collecting two goals and four assists in the two Canisius victories.
Gibbons opened the scoring with 41 seconds left in the first period, clipping a shot between Mercyhurst goaltender Jordan Tibbett and the left post. He added the first of Canisius’ three power-play goals at 4:36 of the second period, snapping home a hard shot from the high slot to give the Griffs a 2-0 lead.
“What a surreal experience,” Gibbons said. “I’m speechless. I can’t do it without any of those other guys in the locker room. Individual accomplishments are special, but you can’t really achieve them without a team game.”
The all-tournament team included Gibbons and Canisius goaltender Tony Capobianco and defenseman Ben Danford. Mercyhurst senior forward Paul Chiasson and junior defenseman Nick Jones were also honored.
The game was marked by a bizarre second period that featured the disqualification of Mercyhurst forward Kyle Just on an illegal hit from behind, a Lakers’ goal disallowed after a replay review, an empty net inexplicably missed by Lakers’ forward Chris Bodo, a broken skate and finally, two goals from Canisius freshman Ralph Cuddemi, matching his season total.
The Griffs — after notching their fourth goal of the weekend in the final minute of a period on Cuddemi’s power-play goal with 57 seconds left on the clock — went into the second intermission with a commanding 4-1 lead.
“I thought the second period was an absolute schmozzle,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “It was the craziest period of hockey. I mean, I’ve been doing this a long time and I don’t remember a period that was like that – it was a nightmare for us, but that’s just how it goes.”
Jones scored a power-play goal 58 seconds into the third period to cut the Canisius lead to 4-2, but Griffs’ winger Cody Freeman scored his eighth goal of the month at the 7:03 mark to re-establish the three-goal lead at 5-2.
Senior forward Torrey Lindsay and fourth-year defenseman Ben Parker’s power-play marker closed the scoring for Canisius.
Canisius has not taken an easy path to the championship, eliminating two-seed Air Force in the quarterfinal round and one-seed Niagara in Friday night’s semifinal.
While the Griffs’ offense has blossomed with 36 goals in their past eight games, the Canisius calling card has remained its goaltending and defense. Capobianco stopped 34 shots in the victory and was aided by a blue line corps that calmly kept the Lakers’ high-scoring forwards neutralized for much of the game.
Canisius currently has the nation’s 14th-ranked team defense, allowing an average of 2.38 goals per game, and the second-ranked penalty kill in all of Division I hockey.
“The one thing that can level a playing field is your effort, your desire and your drive to play defense,” Smith said. “There are some fundamental defensive things that we try to do, but you can’t do it alone. It’s not Tony Capo by himself, it’s not Ben Danford by himself, it’s five guys and it’s a great penalty kill.”
For Mercyhurst (19-17-5), the loss marks a bittersweet end to a similarly unlikely run. The Lakers sank in the hotly-contested Atlantic Hockey standings in the final weeks of the season, stumbling through eight winless games to close the calendar in sixth place before sweeping Army in the opening round of the playoffs.
Mercyhurst then defeated three-seed Holy Cross in three games in the quarterfinals and disposed of four-seed Connecticut in the semifinal on Friday night.
“I would have wanted a better outcome in the end, but the playoff run’s been amazing,” said Chaisson. “I mean, knocking off Holy Cross, a good team, and Army as well. And winning last night, that was huge for us.”
Early projections have the Griffs facing Quinnipiac in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Bobcats were regular-season ECAC champions, finished third in the postseason tournament and are currently ranked second in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.
Atlantic Hockey rival Niagara is also expected to make the tournament with an at-large bid.
“The teams coming from Atlantic Hockey are prepared for the national tournament and that involves everybody,” Smith said. “On a night-to-night basis, you’re seeing top goaltending, stud defensemen and elite scorers, in-league and out of league. We’re prepared for whatever’s out there.”