American International scored three third period goals to break a 2-2 tie and defeat Canisius 5-2 to win its second consecutive Atlantic Hockey championship.
The Yellow Jackets have now won three straight regular-season league championships and now two straight playoff titles (2019, 2021).
Chris Theodore’s power-play goal at 3:24 of the third period gave AIC its first lead of the game, and the Yellow Jackets tacked on a pair of empty net goals to seal the championship.
“It wasn’t our best game, not even close,” said AIC senior defenseman and captain Brennan Kapcheck, who had three assists. “But we kept grinding it out. That’s AIC hockey.”
“You’re trailing 1-0 last night inside of 10 minutes, and then tonight we’re down 1-0 and 2-1,” said Yellow Jackets coach Eric Lang. “I’m a probabilities guy. I know what those numbers look like. Our guys were just resilient.”
Canisius opened the scoring 8:40 into the contest. The Golden Griffins’ J.D. Pogue entered the AIC zone on a partial breakaway, but was knocked off the puck. Matt Long got possession back for Canisius, and fed Pogue in front of the AIC net. His attempt to stuff the puck past Yellow Jackets goaltender Stefano Durante failed, but Kevin Obssuth, Canisius’ 13th dressed forward, was there to lift the puck over Durante.
American International evened it up early in the second on a goal by Justin Cole, his ninth of the season. Cole redirected a shot from Chris Dodero past Canisius goaltender Jacob Barczewski to tie the game 1-1 at 1:21.
But less than two minutes later, Grant Meyer was able to lift a rebound over Durante to give the Golden Griffins back the lead.
It stayed that way until five minutes to play in the period, when AIC’s Elijah Barriga scored his second goal of the weekend. Barriga converted on a trailing pass from Theodore to knot the game at 2-2.
With 1:26 left in the second, during a scrum behind the Canisius net, Golden Griffins forward Mitchell Martan took a crosschecking major which proved costly. The penalty was assessed after a video review.
“Chris Dodero came back to the bench and said, ‘Hey coach, that kid crosschecked me in the head’, said Lang. “And we radioed it upstairs pretty quick. When we looked at it, it’s a no brainer.”
At 3:24 of the third period, with two seconds left in the major, Theodore put the Yellow Jackets ahead to stay. Tobias Fladeby’s shot was stopped by Barczewski, but Theodore was there to pounce on the rebound.
“Coach has been preaching, ‘Get to the net, get to the net’, said Theodore. “I finally got to the net and it was a good rebound.”
“It was a huge momentum shift,” said Kapcheck. “It gave us more life.”
“We kept it together with the game plan,” said Theodore. “We’re a third period team.”
— AIC Hockey (@AIC_Hockey) March 21, 2021
Canisius pulled Barczewski with under three minutes to play, but the Yellow Jackets scored twice into the empty net. Barczewski had made several key saves in the third to keep the Golden Griffins in contention. He finished with 31 stops as AIC outshot Canisius 36-17.
“‘Barzo’ was great,” said Canisius coach Trevor Large. “Every time he’s been in net for us, he’s an absolute rock. He’s an elite goaltender in any conference.”
Canisius, picked to finish tied for last in Atlantic Hockey in the league’s preseason poll, was a period away from the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a tough loss to a great team,” said Large. “All my energy and thoughts right now go to our seniors. The result tonight was not what we wanted, but we’re in a great spot because of the guys we have in the locker room.”
Thanks to upsets in other conferences, AIC was not a lock for the NCAA tournament despite having the best winning percentage in Division I at .824 (14-3).
But the Yellow Jackets left no doubt, hoisting the Jack Riley Trophy again.
“There is nothing better in the NCAA tournament than playing yourself into it,” said Lang. “We were probably posturing and jockeying a little bit if things didn’t go our way tonight, but at the end of the day there’s nothing better than playing your way in.”
“I love this team,” said Theodore. “We’re going to make some noise in this tournament.”
Atlantic Hockey All-Tournament Team
F: Elijiah Barriga, AIC
F: Justin Cole, AIC
F: J.D. Pogue, Canisius
D: Logan Gestro, Canisius
D: Brennan Kapcheck, AIC
D: Stefano Durante Canisius
Most Outstanding Player: Justin Cole, AIC