Canisius coach Dave Smith held up the news conference after the Golden Griffins’ Atlantic Hockey semifinal victory to take a cell phone photo of sophomore winger Tyler Wiseman, who sat at the end of the elevated interview table, bedecked in a yellow construction helmet.
“Right now, I’m trying to focus on taking a picture of Tyler,” Smith said, drawing laughs from the room of reporters. “I’m going to send it to his brother.”
2013 Atlantic Hockey Championship
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Smith had good reason to be cheery. The Griffs, a seven seed entering the AHA playoffs, had just knocked off top-seeded Niagara 5-3 in an unexpected shootout on Friday afternoon at Blue Cross Arena.
And Wiseman — whose brother is Albany Devils winger Chad Wiseman — had good reason to sport a workingman’s headwear. The sophomore winger from Burlington, Ontario, had just put in a blue-collar day at the rink, collecting a pair of goals and assisting on junior defenseman Duncan McKellar’s game-winning power play goal in the waning moments of the second period.
“A few years ago [2009-10], RIT came in here and went on a good run, and it turned the program around,” Wiseman said. “We’re looking to do the same thing.”
Canisius is in the midst of a magical run that has pushed the team to the brink of the first Atlantic Hockey championship and first berth in Division I NCAA tournament in school history. The Griffs have won seven consecutive games — including five in the Atlantic Hockey playoffs — and will play the winner of the Mercyhurst-Connecticut semifinal for a ticket to the NCAAs.
The seven-game run is the longest in Canisius’ 15-year existence as a Division I program and is one game short of the overall school record, an eight-game winning streak in 1992 that came in the Griffs’ Division III days.
Friday’s victory came at the expense of the Atlantic Hockey regular-season champion, Niagara, and both the conference’s player of the year — junior goaltender Carsen Chubak — and coach of the year, Dave Burkholder. The Purple Eagles, who sewed up the top seed in the AHA tournament in mid-February, entered the game 15th in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll and tied for ninth in the PairWise Rankings.
But while Canisius has struggled at times this season — slapped with five shutout losses before Dec. 31, saddled with a 3-9 record from Jan. 18 through Feb. 23, struggling to an 0-7-4 record in games decided by one goal or less until finally beating RIT 6-5 on March 1 — the Griffs had played Niagara well. In their three showdowns with their Western New York archrival, Canisius posted a 1-2 record but was outscored only 4-3.
On Friday, nine skaters recorded points for Canisius and its penalty kill — second in the nation — stopped all four Purple Eagles power plays.
“Kyle [Gibbons] and Tony [Capobianco] and Cody [Freeman] are the guys who are getting a lot of the headlines, but as we talked about, they can’t win it by themselves,” Smith said. “Because of the scoring depth, every goal that they gets seems more magnified. But when you get depth of scoring, and your penalty killers do a good job, it all comes together. It’s not just scoring depth, it’s not just Cody and [first-line center Patrick] Sullivan and Gibby playing well. You can’t go on a run like this with just one player.”
The Griffs were anchored, as they have been throughout the tourney, by Capobianco, whose 41 saves gave him 201 for the tournament — an Atlantic Hockey playoff record.
Capobianco survived a shaky first period in which he faced 15 shots and made some jaw-clenching saves on routine Niagara attempts. He is 5-0 in the 2012-13 postseason.
“I just had difficulty seeing the puck [in the first period],” Capobianco said. “There was one bounce, near the end of the first period, that I think looked scarier than it was — it wasn’t going to go in, it just hit me in a weird spot so the rebound kind of kicked out. It was kind of hard to see the puck at first.
“As the game went on, I got more comfortable … [but] I prefer to be engaged. In the first period, it was kind of hard to get in the groove, but in the second period I settled down and felt better. I like the work. It gets me in a rhythm.”
The Griffs are the lowest seed ever to reach the Atlantic Hockey final. On Saturday night, the team will try to make more history.
“It’s a heck of a fun ride, because the guys are having fun,” Smith said. “The smiles are bigger. They’re [standing] taller. Everything is bigger and brighter right now, and it’s great to have the support of the school.”