Canisius and Niagara are separated by about 25 miles and the Niagara River. The Grand Island Bridge (bridges, actually) that spans the river has become a symbol of the sports rivalry between the two schools.
The schools call the competition The Battle of the Bridge. And the stakes got higher this year with Atlantic Hockey points on the line.
On Tuesday, in the first conference game between the schools since 1998, when both played in the Division III ECAC West, Niagara won a wild 6-5 contest in overtime in front of 1,421 fans at the Buffalo State Sports Arena. Senior forward Paul Zanette’s short-handed goal was the game-winner, but not before Canisius scored twice in the final minute of regulation to tie the game at 5.
“The momentum swings were monumental and not fun to live through,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We pretty much had control of the game in the first period, outshooting them 20-4 but finding ourselves down 2-0. Then we come back, they get a short-handed goal and we get a short-handed goal. It had everything a fan could ask for.
“We’re fortunate to have pulled it out. It was a game we had to win. As well as we’ve been playing, to lose a game like that would have been devastating.”
Even though the rivalry has always been strong between these two programs, Burkholder said the intensity was turned up with points on the line.
“You can’t even compare it,” he said. “It wasn’t even close for me [comparing past meetings with this one]. To have lost those two points would have really set us back.”
The Battle of the Bridge isn’t settled. The teams meet again for a pair of games in February.
Game of the week
This week’s contest features the teams that have combined to win the last four playoff titles, as well as three of the last four regular season championships in Atlantic Hockey.
Rochester Institute of Technology travels to face Air Force on Sunday. The all-time record between the two teams stands at 12-12-2 with each getting a sweep on home ice last season. It doesn’t get more even than that.
“Most of those games were one-goal games,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “It’s been a great series between two good teams. We have a ton of respect for what [Air Force has] accomplished and this will be a good gauge for us to see where we are. Games against teams like [Air Force] and Robert Morris early in the season are good for us.”
Both teams struggled out of the gate against tough non-conference teams. The Falcons dropped games against No. 14 Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, while the Tigers already have played five games against teams ranked in the Top 20: St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha, Rensselaer, Union and Cornell.
Both are also breaking in new goaltenders as workhorses Andrew Volkening and Jared DeMichiel have moved on. RIT and Air Force each have used three goalies so far this season and have yet to settle on a single or even a tandem of netminders.
“I think in our case, all three goalies have played well from day one,” Wilson said. “We’ve played a tough schedule and still have a lot of room for improvement. I don’t think I could say that last season. We had a talented team that was challenged to play up to their potential. This season I think we have played well, but not quite as well as last season. But that means there’s room for improvement and each game we’ve shown improvement.”
A twist to this Sunday’s contest is that it is a single game between the Tigers and Falcons due to the new AHA schedule, which sees teams play some others three times. Mercyhurst flies out to play Air Force on Friday, and the Falcons will make trips to Mercyhurst and RIT for a pair of games each later in the season.
“It’s certainly different,” Wilson said. “The margin of error is not as great. If you lose you’re on the plane going home instead of getting another crack at it. You just want to play again, win or lose.”
In the department of strange statistics: Robert Morris has outscored its opposition 9-1 during the final 10 minutes of games this season, and 11-5 in the third period. It’s no wonder the Colonials are off to a 5-1 start, the best in school history.