With Bentley series on tap, Canisius breaking down next stretch of games into ‘smaller bites’

Matt Hoover is Canisius’ top scorer this season with 16 points on six goals and 10 assists (photo: tomwolf.smugmug.com).

Teams return from the semester/holiday break with a chance to either use a successful first half as a springboard to more success, or put the past behind them and hope that the break marks a fresh start.

So far, Canisius fits the pattern of a turnaround in progress.

The Golden Griffins had lost six straight before the holidays, but since Christmas, they’re 3-0-1 including a sweep of Holy Cross at HarborCenter and taking four of six points in a home-and-home series with Rochester Institute of Technology last weekend.

But Canisius coach Trevor Large isn’t convinced that the break did his team good. Instead, he says it’s been steady improvement for his squad, which features 10 freshmen.

“I don’t think it was rest (that helped),” he said. “Actually, it was a time that we didn’t really want a break. We were on a steady incline of better play.”

Ten rookies in the lineup means growing pains, especially early in the season. But Large saw improvement even though it wasn’t always showing on the scoreboard.

“Two close losses to Army (in late November); Army’s a very good team,” Large said. “Two close losses to AIC (the next weekend), one an overtime loss, another really good team. You can see the progression in those games.”

The confidence was there on Dec. 28-29 when the Golden Griffins opened the second half with their first conference sweep of the season over Holy Cross.

And the maturity was there last Friday against RIT when Canisius, outplayed thoroughly through two periods, gained the momentum in the third period and overtime to earn a point.

The following evening, Canisius saw a 3-0 lead evaporate with RIT tying the game with 1:17 to play. But senior Matt Hoover scored just 18 seconds later to right the ship and earn three points in the standings.

“The games were similar but opposite,” said Large. “On Friday, they were on us hard for the first two periods. Saturday, it was the reverse. We were sharp and playing great up 3-0 and all of a sudden, here they come.”

Hoover leads the team in scoring with six goals and 10 assists. Linemate Nick Hutchison and defenseman Matt Steif (15 points) are right behind. All are seniors.

Hutchinson recently scored his 50th career goal and has 95 career points to date.

Stief is enjoying his most productive year, currently second in scoring among AHA blueliners.

“(Stief) has been great for us,” said Large. “We’re got four freshmen defenseman and he’s been a great leader back there.”

Another reason for the recent success has been rookie goaltender Jack Barczewski, who missed some time due to injury in late November. He’s 3-0-1 since his return.

“He took one to the face in our game with Army,” said Large. “Dented his cage and it took 12 stitches (to close).”

Seven of Canisius’ next eight games are on the road, including series at Sacred Heart and Army West Point, teams at the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings.

The Golden Griffins travel to Bentley this weekend.

“We’re breaking (this next stretch) down into smaller bites,” said Large. “It might be intimidating to say it out loud. Friday night at Bentley has our full attention. They’re going to be tight games for sure.”

First-half awards

Now that we’re at the midway point of the season, it’s not too early to start thinking about Atlantic Hockey postseason awards, which will be handed out in early March.

If the season ended today, who would be recognized? Here’s my take on the major awards:

All Conference

A first, second and third team will be awarded at the end of the season. I’ll just go with a first team for now:

Forward: Joseph Cotten (Sacred Heart): 20 points (14-6) in 20 games
Forward: Austin McIlmurray (Sacred Heart): 19 points (12-7) in 20 games
Forward: Jakov Novak (Bentley): 20 points (12-8) in 20 games
Defense: Mike Lee (Sacred Heart): 22 points (2-20) in 19 games; plus-17
Defense: Matt Stief (Canisius): 15 points (2-13) in 18 games
Goal: Justin Kapelmaster (Robert Morris): .941 save percentage; 2.22 GAA

All Rookie

Forward: Braeden Tuck (Sacred Heart): 17 points (2-15) in 20 games
Forward: Matt Gosiewski (Bentley): 12 points (6-6) in 19 games
Forward: Caleb Moretz (RIT): 12 points (6-6) in 20 games
Defense: Anthony Firriolo (Army West Point): 9 points (2-6) in 18 games
Defense: Joseph Maziarz (Mercyhurst): 6 points (2-4) in 17 games
Goal: Jacob Barczewski (Canisius): .922 save percentage; 2.51 GAA

Most Valuable Player: Justin Kapelmaster, Robert Morris
Rookie of the year: Jacob Barczewski, Canisius
Coach of the year: Brian Riley, Army West Point

Hobey watch

The midpoint of the season also unofficially kicks off Hobey Baker speculation.

Atlantic Hockey has been represented in the group of 10 Hobey finalists every year since 2014, and in 12 of the past 15 seasons.

The best hope for a finalist at this point is at the goaltender position. Kapelmaster is currently third in the nation in save percentage (.941).

Any other hopefuls are long shots at this point. For example, Lee, who leads the league in points per game, is tied for 22nd nationally. Lee is third nationally among defensemen, however.

There’s a lot of hockey left to play, so perhaps a different contender may emerge in the second half of the season.

Looking ahead

Here are a couple of intriguing matchups this weekend:

Air Force at Army West Point – This is obviously the premier rivalry in the league and the only series between the teams this season. Air Force was 2-0-2 against Army last season, including a sweep at Tate Rink.

UMass Lowell at RIT – This is one of a handful of non-conference series left as the league tries to improve on its 13-54-4 (.288) record out of conference.