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by Zac Hirschbeck / Buffalo Sabres

CANISIUS GOLDEN GRIFFINS (18-11-7 Overall, 15-7-6 Atlantic Hockey)

Following a first-round bye in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, the second-seeded Golden Griffins earned a semifinal berth with two hard-fought wins over Sacred Heart last weekend.

Canisius will now face RIT in an AHC semifinal game on Friday at Blue Cross Arena. Game time is 8:35 p.m. The winner of Canisius/RIT moves on to play the winner of Robert Morris/Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Hockey Championship game on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. The winner of the AHC Championship will advance to the NCAA Division I Tournament.

Friday’s game one matchup saw the Griffins defeat Sacred Heart 2-0. Freshman defenseman Jack Stander and junior forward Ralph Cuddemi scored late in the first period, and in his first postseason start in net for Canisius, senior goaltender Keegan Asmundson stopped all 19 Sacred Heart shots he faced. Asmundson’s shutout was his second of the 2014-15 season and third of his collegiate career.

A night later, the Golden Griffins employed a nearly identical formula in beating Sacred Heart 2-1. With only 1:22 played in the opening period, Canisius opened the scoring with a goal from senior Cody Freeman. With the goal, Freeman set a school record with his 10th career postseason marker.

Canisius’ one goal-lead was doubled early on in the third period as junior defenseman Chris Rumble jumped up in the play to put the Golden Griffins ahead by two with just 2:40 played in the final period. The two-goal cushion was all Asmundson needed to push Canisius into the semifinals. Although he failed to post a second consecutive shutout, Asmundson stopped 31 of 32 Sacred Heart shots.

Asmundson's weekend performances earned him Atlantic Hockey Goaltender of the Week honors. The senior netminder stopped 51 of 52 shots in the two victories against the Pioneers, posting a 0.50 GAA and .981 save%.

“When you get to this stage of the season where you’re in ‘win or go home’ situations, you have to have a good goaltender and we have one,” said Canisius head coach Dave Smith. “He’s been playing great since Christmas. He’s been one of the best goalies in the country, let alone our league.”

Canisius will need another strong performance from Asmundson if they are to book a spot in Saturday night’s championship game. Earlier this season, the Golden Griffins managed only a single point in a back-to-back set with RIT at HARBORCENTER on November 14-15.

With the chance to avenge an early season loss, and more importantly claim a spot in the Atlantic Hockey Championship, Canisius will need little outside motivation prior to Friday’s contest.

“We know it’s going to be a jam-packed building and that it’s going to be really intense. That’s we want,” Smith said. “Our guys are ready to get after it.”

In addition to the intensity that will be a part of Friday’s game, Smith believes whichever team will be able to win the physical battle, and control their emotions will be moving on.

“My feeling is that it’s going to be the most physical game of the season, and it’s also going to be one of the most emotional games of the season,” Smith said. “The team that is most equipped to handle those two aspects will win the game.”

RIT TIGERS (17-14-5 Overall, 14-9-5 Atlantic Hockey)
Much like Canisius, RIT benefitted from the extra rest provided by a first-round bye in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament. The third-seeded Tigers swept Air Force in their quarterfinal matchup, winning 2-1 on Friday, and 7-3 on Saturday.

RIT now moves on to face Canisius in a semifinal game on Friday night at Blue Cross Arena. Game time is 8:35 p.m.

Despite being outshot 26-24 in Friday’s game against Air Force, RIT relied on strong special teams play and steady goaltending from senior Jordan Ruby to take game one.

Senior captain Matt Garbowsky continued his exemplary season for the Tigers as his 25th goal of the season tied the game at 1-1 for RIT with 15:19 played in the second period. Garbowsky’s linemate, junior forward Josh Mitchell scored the winner on the power play with just 4:57 gone in the third period.

On Saturday, RIT rode the hot hand of senior forward Brad McGowan in the convincing victory. McGowan scored four goals, and the Tigers converted three of their five man power play opportunities.

McGowan, who has formed a dynamic trio alongside Garbowsky and Mitchell, recorded the first four-goal game in the program’s history at the D-I level. The big night also propelled McGowan to Atlantic Hockey Player of the Week honors for the second time in three weeks.

“His performance was clutch for us,” Wilson said. “That line has been huge for us all year long. Brad stepped it up on Saturday and he was the hero.”

Oddly enough, RIT head coach Wayne Wilson didn’t feel as if his team was able to find a rhythm on the power play.

“I didn’t think we did a real good job on the power play,” Wilson said. “All year long our power play has worked really well in getting out, setting it up, and creating chances, but we just weren’t scoring. This weekend we didn’t quite get the set-ups that we wanted, but the puck was going in for us. It’s weird how that works, but we’ll take it.”

Wilson would eagerly welcome more heroics on Friday. Although RIT took three out of four points during their two-game set with Canisius in November, Wilson believes the Griffs will be a tough test.

“Our expectations are to win, and if we had any had any other expectations it’d be shame on us,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a great opponent on our hands. They’re well coached and nothing’s going to be easy. We’ve played some top teams over the last several games, but Canisius is our target now and we’ll go after them like we go after everyone else.”

NIAGARA PURPLE EAGLES (7-28-4 Overall, 5-19-4 Atlantic Hockey)
After finishing the regular season strong and upsetting Holy Cross in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, Niagara’s season came to a close this past weekend after being swept by Robert Morris in the quarterfinals by scores of 4-2 (Friday) and 6-3 (Saturday).

While the scores may indicate a relatively comfortable pair of wins for Robert Morris, that was far from the case.

In Friday’s game, Niagara finished the first period with a 2-1 lead after goals from sophomore forward Patrick Conte and sophomore defenseman Kevin Patterson. However, Niagara was unable to hold onto the lead despite a 36-save effort from sophomore goalie Jackson Teichroeb.

A night later, the Purple Eagles managed to battle back from a two-goal deficit to tie the game at 3-3 heading into the third. Unfortunately for Niagara, a fluky bounce early in the final period led to a shorthanded Robert Morris goal and the Colonials never looked back.

Despite the loss, Niagara head coach Dave Burkholder was happy to see his club finish the season by playing the conference’s top seed so tough.

“We got a couple of key players back down the stretch, particularly Kevin Albers, a senior captain that plays a ton of minutes on the backend for us,” Burkholder said. “We were playing our best hockey, and unfortunately that wasn’t enough to beat the top team in the league.”

Although the season-ending loss undoubtedly still stings, Burkholder was proud of what his team was able to accomplish in spite of several injuries to key contributors.

“We try not to look at our record this year,” Burkholder said. “I’m going to remember how well we played in February and March and how hard we worked all season long. They did everything that was asked of them so I’m really proud of the guys.”

In addition to praising the commitment of his players despite adverse circumstances, Burkholder also looked at this season’s results as a tool for growth for next season and beyond.

“We’re a young team,” Burkholder said. “We had a lot of younger guys play a lot due to injuries and they gained some good experience. We think that’s going to bode well for future success.”

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