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Canisius hockey enjoying breakthrough season as NCAA tournament awaits for Golden Griffins @NHLdotcom

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Dave Smith is suddenly stumped, and it has nothing to do with the daunting task of preparing Canisius to face top-seeded Quinnipiac in the opening round of the NCAA hockey tournament.

Smith is instead lost for an answer when it comes to a question no other Golden Griffins hockey coach has encountered since the program jumped to the Division I level in 1998.

Where to hang the Atlantic Hockey tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth banners?

"I don't know. It's a good question," Smith said. "Maybe it goes in the weight room. Maybe it goes on my door."

For a program long on hockey history, dating to the early 1970s, the Golden Griffins have been short on success and a rink to call their own.

Lacking an on-campus home, they play at nearby Buffalo State College. And up until last weekend, the Golden Griffins had never won a conference title or earned an NCAA tournament berth. Canisius (19-18-5) will open the 16-team tournament against Quinnipiac (27-7-5) at Providence, R.I., on Saturday.

"Yeah, absolutely, it's fulfilling," Smith said, but not only for him and his team.

In his eighth season, Smith wants to share this achievement with everyone who has ever been part of Canisius hockey: from Tampa Bay Lightning centre Cory Conacher, an NHL rookie of the year candidate this season, to David Dietz, the classics professor who established the first club team in 1971.

What's satisfying is the number of emails, texts and phone calls we've received from every alum, every former coach. They own a piece of this," Smith said. "We're carrying the flag for all of those alums that didn't get recognized, that helped build the foundation, that helped build expectations."

Their 19 wins are the most since a 21-10-4 finish in 1999-2000, when Canisius was part of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference hockey league. The Golden Griffins are also assured a .500 or better finish for only the sixth time at the Division I level.

And they didn't make it easy on themselves this year. Canisius opened the season 1-6-3, and closed February by losing five straight. But it bounced back by reeling off eight consecutive wins ??? currently the nation's best streak and matches the school's best at any level.

Seeded seventh in the league, the Griffins rolled to the title by defeating top-seeded Air Force in the quarterfinal round. They knocked off No. 2 seed Niagara in the semifinal, and then routed Mercyhurst 7-2 in the championship Saturday.

"I'd say after that five-game losing streak, it was a little tough to see this coming," junior goalie Tony Capobianco said. "But with the way we've been all year, being competitive with so many teams ... I feel like the guys just started clicking at the right time."

Capobianco played a big role in the surge. He has a .951 save percentage over the past seven games, having allowed just 14 goals on 285 shots. That included a 4-0 shutout over Bentley in a first-round playoff game, and a 50-save outing in the 4-3 overtime win against Air Force.

The offence has also found its groove. Canisius has scored four or more times in seven of its past eight.

The team is led by junior forward Kyle Gibbons, who has five goals and 12 assists in his past eight games. And his 42 points (20 goals) this season are double or more of every teammate but Preston Shupe, who has 28.

"It's huge," Gibbons said of the team success. "This is something very special that only the guys in our locker room will be able to share. It's very special to us."

Of course, Gibbons acknowledged, Canisius is the underdog entering the tournament.

"That's fine. We've been embracing that all playoffs," he said. "No one's picked us. That's fine. We're OK with that. We'll keep taking the underdog role, but we're a good team."

There's even more to look forward to at Canisius.

School officials are close to completing a deal with the Buffalo Sabres to have the Griffins become the anchor tenant at a hockey/entertainment facility the NHL team's owner, Terry Pegula, is building downtown. The complex, to be completed in two years, will feature two rinks, including one with an 1,800-seating capacity that would serve as Canisius' home.

The Sabres and Griffins have the same blue and gold colours, and a move downtown would help settle yet another pressing issue.

As Sabres spokesman Michael Gilbert said: "We'd certainly love to have them hang the banners at our place."

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