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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

(Photo: RIT Athletics)

RIT TIGERS (19-14-5 overall, 14-9-5 Atlantic Hockey)
For the second time in the program’s Division I history, RIT is headed to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers edged Canisius 2-1 on Friday, and then ran away late in a 5-1 victory over Mercyhurst on Saturday to claim their second Atlantic Hockey Championship. They’ll face the No. 1 team in the country, Minnesota State, in a first-round matchup that will be broadcast on ESPNU at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 28.

For Tigers head coach Wayne Wilson, the championship was a testament to his team’s growth throughout the season. Prior to the New Year, RIT was below .500 in conference play. By season’s end, they were arguably the hottest team in Atlantic Hockey.

“It feels great, there’s really a sense of accomplishment from where we had to come from,” Wilson said. “We weren’t the frontrunner from start to finish; we just kept getting better as the year went on. We kept closing the gap and then we ran out of time during the regular season to get a regular season championship. But I thought that we were moving up the ladder in the right direction. We were playing well at the time and it carried into the playoffs.”

RIT rode its hot streak past Air Force and into its semifinal matchup with rival Canisius, the No. 2 seed in Atlantic Hockey, at Blue Cross Arena on Saturday. The game began fittingly for the Tigers, as Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year Matt Garbowsky fed fellow senior Brad McGowan for the game’s first goal with under a minute to play in the first period.

Shane Conacher evened the score for Canisius midway through the second period, but sophomore Danny Smith responded with the deciding goal roughly five minutes later, scoring on his own rebound after a long pass from Andrew Miller. From there on, Canisius never relented – the Griffs outshot RIT 10-5 in the final period. But senior Jordan Ruby was strong in net, making 27 stops on the night, and, as it’s been all season, the Tigers’ defense played strong and smart. RIT committed only one penalty on the night, limiting the strong Canisius power play.

“There’s a real sense of calmness around our team defensively, so when it’s a 2-1 game and they’re certainly creating opportunities, there’s a poise factor,” Wilson said. “We’re not off the handle, we’re not panicking. There’s a real sense of ‘we’ve got this.’ We’ve played very relaxed but with some intensity, if that makes sense.”

Mercyhurst had gotten hot since closing out their regular season with two losses to RIT, most recently upsetting top-seeded Robert Morris in the conference semifinals. In the championship game, the Lakers came out firing. Mercyhurst outshot the Tigers 16-8 in the first period, but a flawless Ruby took a 0-0 tie into intermission.

RIT appeared to take control in the second. Freshman Matt Abt scored two minutes into the period to put the Tigers ahead, and then Garbowsky and McGowan assisted linemate Josh Mitchell for RIT’s second goal later in the period. Early in the third, however, their momentum was put in jeopardy when Mercyhurst’s Stephen Hrehoriak put the Lakers on the board and cut RIT’s lead to one.

“I was more worried about what the goal did for them, because they’ve made some great comebacks throughout the playoffs against Bentley and against Robert Morris,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got our hands full now.’”

But just as they had against Canisius, the Tigers remained composed. They never let Mercyhurst gain too much offensive momentum and, late in the period, they delivered the finishing blows when Miller and McGowan scored within three minutes of another to put the game out of reach. McGowan added an empty-net goal, and the Tigers were champions.

For Garbowsky and McGowan, the victory meant that their careers had come full circle. Both were freshmen the last time the Tigers made it to the Atlantic Hockey Final, a 4-0 loss to Air Force in 2012. At that time, RIT was coming off three-straight appearances in the championship game, but since that 2012 loss the team had never gotten back.

“I think they’re two key, resourceful people for getting us back there and putting us back on track,” Wilson said. “I guess we just got so accustomed to going there, we took it for granted and there might’ve been a lot of different reasons why we missed the rope the last two years but I also think I can point to them as the reason we did get back.”

In addition to being named Player of the Year, Garbowsky was named Atlantic Hockey Tournament MVP and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the nation’s top player. On Saturday, he’ll finally have a chance to show his skills on the national stage, and so will his fellow Tigers. They won’t be picked to beat Minnesota State, of course, but then again this Tigers team was never the frontrunner.

“I think we’ve been playing within ourselves,” Wilson said. “I think we have a good mindset. We’re not too full of ourselves thinking ‘we’re unbeatable, look at our streak.’ We’re very respectful of who we play, and I think who we’ve played down the stretch has been very difficult. We’re preparing for what’s coming next and I think we just got to worry about our own game.”

CANISIUS COLLEGE GOLDEN GRIFFINS (18-12-7 overall, 15-7-6 Atlantic Hockey)
The postseason result wasn’t what they wanted, but the season in general was yet another positive step forward for the growing Canisius College hockey program. The Griffs opened their new home ice downtown at the HARBORCENTER, finished second in Atlantic Hockey in the regular season, and came a goal shy of playing in their third-straight title game.

While the disappointment of falling short lingers, Canisius head coach Dave Smith points to the Griffs’ behind-the-scenes accomplishments as cause for celebration when reflecting on the season.

“It’s another big step forward,” Smith said. “We finished second-place in the league; we accomplished so many of our team goals. Internally, we felt like we accomplished all but maybe two of our goals. Often, success is only measured by the championship or the final game, but we had a very successful season. Our team GPA is 3.6. Our guys are very involved in the community. We have so many bright, positive things. The HARBORCENTER and the second-place finish, those are just the most public of our internal team goals.”

Canisius graduates key contributors including: captain Doug Jessey, second-team All Atlantic Hockey goaltender Keegan Asmundson and forward Mitch McCrank. But expect the Griffs to come back with another talented roster next season, as they return All Atlantic Hockey Players in defenseman Chris Rumble and forward Ralph Cuddemi as well as their assist leader, Shane Conacher, to lead a young promising crop of players in 2015-16.

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