This Week in Atlantic Hockey: Jan. 10, 2008

Home Cooking

Canisius College had five home wins by this time last season, and has four so far this year. The big difference is that last year the Griffs had six home losses to go with those five wins, while this time around they’re undefeated at home at 4-0-1.

While playing 16 of its first 21 games on the road, Canisius has taken seven of eight league points on home ice, plus an emotional 4-3 win over local rival Niagara in front of a record crowd at Buffalo State, where the Griffs play the majority of their home games.

The difference in fan support at Buffalo State from last season to this one has been astounding. Last year at this time Canisius was averaging only 292 fans per game there; this season it’s 1,337. The Griffs’ Dec. 30 win over Niagara came in front of a record crowd of 1,711, even though the game was televised locally.

“It was a physical, high-tempo game,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith. “The crowd was great. We haven’t had that many home games, so each one has had great crowd support, and generated an adrenaline rush for us.”

Canisius got three goals in the second period and held off a Niagara rally for the victory. Niagara had the only goal of the third period and outshot the Griffs 16-7 in the final stanza, but Andrew Loewen stopped 37 shots in all for the win.

Loewen continued his hot streak last weekend, stopping 69 of 71 shots as the Griffins took three points from Bentley with a 4-1 win and a 1-1 tie. Bentley outshot Canisius in both games.

“Andrew is our starter and has played very well for us,” said Smith. “He was under some pressure in all those games but made the saves when we needed them.”

Also making some big contributions was freshman Cory Conacher. The youngest player in Division I (Conacher recently turned 18) had been sidelined for the first half of the season with a wrist injury, but has made his presence known since getting into the lineup, with four points in three games. His linemate, Vincent Scarcella, who is also 18 and the fourth-youngest player in D-I, has five goals and nine assists on the season, tied for second on the team with 14 points.

“We really weren’t concerned about their age,” said Smith. “We thought they added an element that we needed and age wasn’t a priority. They have speed, skill and competitiveness.

“Their question for us was, ‘Are we really going to play?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to play a lot.'”

Conacher had two assists in his first game of the season against Niagara, and had a goal and an assist in the 4-2 win over Bentley last Saturday.

But it’s not just the young guns who are making contributions. Smith points to senior Dave Kasch and sophomore Jason Weeks as key reasons for the Griffs’ current five-game unbeaten streak. Canisius has lost just once since Thanksgiving, including a pair of ties at first-place Air Force.

Weeks has scored at least one point in each of Canisius’ last six games, and Kasch is tied for second in scoring with 14 points so far.

“Weeks starting to get hot has been very important for us,” said Smith. “And Kasch does all the little things. We go three plus lines deep now, and that’s making a big difference.”

The Griffs played Bentley at their alternative home rink, the Pepsi Center in Amherst, N.Y. They’ll be there again this weekend, hosting Connecticut. They crowds have not been as large as at Buffalo State — around 450 a game. Still, Smith says it’s the right thing to do.

“We’re trying to establish a relationship beyond our students and with all of Western New York,” he said. “We scheduled these games for the period where school is out and there’s no students on campus. Amherst is right in the middle of some huge youth hockey organizations.

“I think the crowds (at the Pepsi Center) were smaller last weekend because of it being after the holiday and the Winter Classic (which saw the Sabres hosting Pittsburgh outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo). I think we’ll have better crowds this weekend.”

Smith says he’s wary of UConn, even though the Huskies are in a bit of a slump lately.

“Anybody can beat anybody,” he said, echoing a familiar mantra heard throughout the league this season. “UConn beat Army recently. Bentley started hot but has fallen back into the pack. RIT is playing well right now. It’s going to come down to the last weekend.”

Weekly Awards

Player of the Week for January 7, 2008:
Brennan Sarazin — RIT

The junior forward had a four-point weekend, including his first two goals of the season, to help RIT to its first sweep of the season, a pair of wins at Holy Cross

Goaltender of the Week for January 7, 2008:
Andrew Loewen — Canisius

The sophomore netminder stopped 69 of 71 shots to backstop the Griffins to a 1-1 tie and 4-1 win against Bentley.

Rookie of the Week for January 7, 2008:
Cory Conacher — Canisius

Conacher had two points in a 4-1 win against Bentley, including his first collegiate goal. Sidelined by an injury through the first semester, Conacher has four points in his first three games.

Nothing Settled

The top two teams in the conference squared off at Sacred Heart last weekend, as the Pioneers hosted league-leading Air Force. The teams split a pair of close games, with Sacred Heart coming out on top on Friday, 2-1, and Air Force returning the favor, 3-1, on Saturday.

While a split comes as no surprise to anyone following this league, Pioneer coach Shaun Hannah predictably wasn’t happy to settle for two points, even though it was the first time ever that his squad had beaten the Falcons.

“We’d always seem to play them there (Colorado Springs) or in a tournament,” said Hannah, referring to last year’s overtime loss in the AHA semifinals in Rochester. “We could have played better on Saturday. But credit Air Force. They’re Air Force. They just work and work. Both teams skated hard.”

The Falcons outshot the Pioneers 36-19 on Friday and 42-17 on Saturday. Friday was the first time all season that Air Force had held an opponent to under 20 shots in a game and lost.

“(Goalie) Stefan Drew was our player of the weekend,” said Hannah. “He was outstanding. He came up with some huge saves for us.”

Drew and company were able to hold the Falcon’s leading scorer Eric Ehn off the scoresheet. Ehn is in a mini-slump, not having scored a goal since November 30 and going pointless in his last four games.

Thanks to RIT’s sweep of Holy Cross, the Pioneers dropped into third place after their loss on Saturday, but are still looking good, with the fewest losses in the league and with two games in hand on RIT and four on Air Force.

They’re winning with goaltending and a balanced attack that has no player with more than seven goals.

“We’re solid and balanced,” said Hannah. “And it always comes down to the losses. We’re glad to have those games in hand. Now we need to win them.”

Around the League

Air Force: While Eric Ehn is having trouble lighting the lamp, the Falcons’ second line is taking over the scoring load. Junior winger Brent Olson is riding a five-game scoring streak and has eight goals in his last eight games, including both in a 2-2 tie at Minnesota on December 30. Linemate Jeff Hajner was held scoreless on Saturday, the first time he has failed to register a point in nine games.

Bentley: The Falcons are having a season very similar to last year, when they got points every weekend but had difficulty sweeping. Bentley Junior Dain Prewitt scored his 33rd career goal on Friday, moving him into second place all-time at Bentley in its Division I era. He trails classmate Jeff Gumaer, who has 41.