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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres


CANISIUS COLLEGE GOLDEN GRIFFINS (10-8-6 overall, 9-4-5 Atlantic Hockey)
In 2013, the year Canisius won the Atlantic Hockey Championship and came up a period shy of knocking off national No. 1 Quinnipiac in the NCAA Tournament, they did so after having won 12 conference games in the regular season. Their Atlantic Hockey record that year was 12-13-2, good for seventh in the league.

Last season, when they got back to the Atlantic Hockey Championship (this time losing to Robert Morris in a back-and-forth affair), Canisius played even worse in the regular season. They won only 10 games in Atlantic Hockey and finished eighth. The playoffs came, and it didn’t matter.

But this year’s Griffs are making things easier for themselves. In the midst of their longest unbeaten streak in five years, Canisius has taken on opponents that were ahead of them in the standings and leap-frogged them with wins each time. After a sweep of Holy Cross the previous weekend, Canisius beat Mercyhurst on Jan. 13 and then earned a tie and a shutout victory over Bentley on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

The streak has seen Canisius rise to second place in the conference, which, for the time being, is a steady improvement from their regular season results of the last two years.

“I think it’s a product of a lot of things. Not only have we been to the finals the last two years and we have a championship with guys in the locker room, moving into the HARBORCENTER, playing some of our games at the First Niagara Center. Our guys feel great about the Canisius College hockey program, and we believe that we can win every game,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said on Tuesday.

Canisius’ wins have been a product of contributions from all over the board. In Friday night’s 2-2 tie against Bentley, it was a pair of freshmen in David Bennett and Nolan Sheeran scoring the goals. The following night, in the Griffs’ 2-0 victory, it was veterans Mitch McCrank and Shane Conacher. Keegan Asmundson was named Atlantic Hockey Goaltender of the Week after stopping 34 shots on Friday and posting an 18-save shutout in the victory.

“And the recipe for Canisius has been exactly that,” Smith said. “We need everybody to contribute, we need everybody to be hard to play against and commit to a 200-foot, all-three-zones game, and when we do that, in the past that’s been a recipe for success. And all of our players have bought into that.”

Canisius has proved over the past two years that they can win in the postseason without a high seed, but that hasn’t been reason for them to settle. It’s easy to over-emphasize the standings in the regular season, Smith admits, but the Canisius players knew how important this past string of games was.

“Our guys identified that as a really important weekend, and I don’t want to lose sight of it that we did the same thing against Mercyhurst – we played really, really well and they’re very good,” he said. “Right now, at this stretch of games, our team is extremely focused on the task at hand, the game in front of them. And we’ve been rewarded recently.”

Upcoming Games

  • Thursday, January 22 @ Niagara (7:05 p.m., Dwyer Arena)
  • Saturday, January 24 @ Niagara (7:05 p.m., Dwyer Arena)

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY PURPLE EAGLES (3-17-2 overall, 3-11-2 Atlantic Hockey)
Niagara hopes that it can take from this past weekend what Buffalo State took from St. Norbert, and RIT from Minnesota. The Purple Eagles went on the road for a pair of games against North Dakota, the No. 2 team in the country. On Friday they lost 7-1 and on Saturday they lost 5-0.

The Purple Eagles haven’t won since Nov. 22, a winless streak that now spans 10 games. But while acknowledging that neither he nor his players were happy with the results, head coach David Burkholder saw reason to draw positives from the experience in North Dakota.

“I think it was an unbelievable experience for our guys to go through, to play one of the perennial powers in college hockey, one of the best teams in college hockey and both nights they had 14 draft picks,” he said.

“And that’s what we need to take out of a non-conference schedule, we try to test ourselves against the best, which we certainly did. We had a lot of players that played very well, that weren’t overwhelmed by the stage or by the size of North Dakota. You’ve got to think that’s going to translate when we get back into league play.”

The writing is on the wall for Niagara to improve. In their three games prior to North Dakota, they suffered two one-goal losses to Air Force and a tie against Sacred Heart. Burkholder points to health and improved special teams as some of the surrounding positives his team recently. Their next step, he says, is putting an end to the second-period woes that have plagued them all year.

“It’s a point of emphasis for us; it’s been our Achilles heel all year. We don’t play a full 60-minute game and until we learn that every minute is as important as our last, we’re going to continue to play and have the results that we’re getting right now,” he said.

Niagara next plays on Thursday night, when they host archrival Canisius at Dwyer Arena – both teams have a lot to prove. Canisius is looking to stay at the top, Niagara to claw its way from the bottom; the rivalry only intensifies it.

“Love it. It’s vicious, it’s a vicious rivalry. This is bragging rights not only for a day and a weekend but for a year,” Smith said from his office at Canisius. “We believe in our routine, and our routine knows that every team in our league has great coaches, committed programs and committed players. And our attention is going to be for Thursday night at Niagara, they’re going to bring a ball of fire and so are we.”

Upcoming Games

  • Thursday, January 22 vs. Canisius (7:05 p.m., Dwyer Arena)
  • Saturday, January 24 vs. Canisius (7:05 p.m., Dwyer Arena)

RIT TIGERS (8-10-4 overall, 7-5-4 Atlantic Hockey)
When R.I.T. played in the Mariucci Classic at the beginning of January, they took a break from their Atlantic Hockey schedule to face a pair of nationally-ranked opponents. The first night, they lost a 7-3 contest to No. 9 University of Massachusetts-Lowell, a game in which coach Wayne Wilson thought his players played well enough to win.

But the next night, against No. 8 Minnesota, the Tigers came even closer. RIT tied that game at two and forced one of the nation’s top hockey programs into overtime. But Minnesota’s Kyle Rau scored shortly into the extra frame; the Tigers lost 3-2.

“The thing that I was most pleased about was how upset we were that we lost to Minnesota in overtime,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t ‘we didn’t get blown out, aren’t we happy that we only lost by one?’ They were disappointed, and I think that spoke volumes more than anything else.”

Wilson says his team gained confidence from that trip, and it’s shown. Four games later, RIT hasn’t lost since, going 3-0-1 in the process. On Friday and Saturday, they swept Sacred Heart with 3-1 and 4-1 victories, respectively. But it wasn’t just confidence that has helped the Tigers during their unbeaten streak.

“Well, I think for one we got healthy,” he said. “We had a lot of injuries from last year; labrum surgeries and concussion situations where none of those guys were available at the beginning of this year.”

One of those players was Caleb Cameron, who scored twice and tallied three points in the series with Sacred Heart. The wins now have the Tigers sitting in sixth place in Atlantic Hockey, but only five points separate them from second-place Canisius and only one point separates them from the team directly in front of them, Bentley – which also happens to be their next opponent.

“Our league’s just getting better and better,” Wilson said. “And you’re looking at you’re schedule like ‘this is going to be tough’ and ‘this is going to be tough,’ before you know it you’re looking at every weekend thinking ‘we’re going to have to play our best to win any of these games.”

Upcoming Games

  • Friday, January 23 @ Bentley (7:05 p.m.)
  • Saturday, January 24 @ Bentley (7:05 p.m.)

BUFFALO STATE BENGALS (6-9-2 overall, 2-4-2 SUNYAC)
Buffalo State had an experience similar to what RIT went through in Minnesota when they played St. Norbert, the top team in Division III hockey, in a set of games in late November. The results were ugly: 7-0 and 8-0 losses, respectively. Those games were just a microcosm of what Bengals Coach Nick Carriere calls the most difficult schedule in program history.

“We’re learning the hard way,” he said on Monday. “I mean, we got smoked twice in Wisconsin (by St. Norbert). Hats off to them and the way they play and the way they work because they never let off the gas nor did we expect them to. But if you want to talk about a long bus ride home, you know 13 hours on a bus, 14 hours on a bus and thinking about not scoring a goal.

“At that point, it had been three or four games where we hadn’t scored a goal. Times were pretty tough there. It would have been easy to kind of just pack it in and start attacking each other and go the easy way out. But I think we’re resilient and that was a turning point in our season and we started playing a lot better hockey.”

St. Norbert is one of several tough non-conference opponents the Bengals have played this season. They played the No. 2 team in the country in Norwich and a consistently good program in Elmira. Last weekend, they finished their non-conference schedule with a pair of games against Johnson & Wales and Curry College.

The Bengals beat Johnson & Wales 2-1, but dropped a 7-3 contest to a Curry team that hasn’t lost since Dec. 6. Buffalo State played Curry close for most of the game, but the Colonels scored three goals late in the game’s final three minutes to blow it wide open.

As if their schedule wasn’t hard enough, Buffalo State has been on the road for virtually all of the last two months; they’ve played only one home game since Nov. 8 and none since Dec. 15. But with SUNYAC play resuming on Friday, Carriere says that the experiences have prepared them.

“You want them. And I think as coaches we try to spin things to our favor, but very honestly the schedule and the teams and the things we’ve been through having all been on the road – hey, guess what, I love being on the road with the guys, especially early because it brings our team together. You’re spending time in meals, you’re spending time on the bus, you’re spending time just kind of hanging out with different roommates and those sorts of things. I think all those are opportunities to just get to know each other and to make you learn some little things about our team, our coaches and our staff that bring us together a little closer.”

Next up for Buffalo State is another tough opponent – they travel to Friday to play Oswego, perennially a top team in the SUNYAC. In their season opener, the Bengals had Oswego on the ropes with a 3-0 lead following a Nick Melligan hat trick. But Oswego scored four unanswered, handing the Bengals a loss they haven’t soon forgotten.

“I think the way we play now is a lot different from the way we’ve played earlier on in the year and I also think our opponent’s learned a lot. I don’t think they’re just going to sit there and say ‘hey, have at it.’ They’re a good team and they’ve been through their own trials and tribulations. But the only thing we’re going to worry about is us and our game and how we’ve improved and how we can take that to our opponent on Friday night,” Carriere said.

Upcoming Games

  • Friday, January 23 @ Oswego (7 p.m.)
  • Saturday, January 24 @ Cortland (7 p.m.)
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