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Conacher’s goal helps Canisius oust Niagara in Atlantic Hockey

Five games without a goal. For Shane Conacher, that feels like a lifetime.

But when Canisius needed to find offense in a deciding playoff game against rival Niagara, it was Conacher who found his second drive.

The junior had a three-point night, including the winning goal, as the Golden Griffins defeated Niagara, 4-1, in front of 616 at HarborCenter on Sunday night.

The win gave Canisius (12-20-5) the first-round playoff series and advanced the Griffs to the quarterfinal round. They will play a best-of-three series in Colorado against second-seeded Air Force beginning Friday.

But to advance, the No. 7-seeded Griffs had to come from behind in the series against No. 10 Niagara. The Purple Eagles took the first game, 3-2, before Canisius rallied for a 1-0 win on Saturday, setting up Sunday’s winner-take-all encounter.

In the first two games, the Griffs’ top line (Conacher, Ralph Cuddemi and Ryan Schmelzer) was held without a goal as Niagara junior goaltender Jackson Teichroeb was dialed in defensively.

“I mean, their goalie was on fire all weekend,” Conacher said. “He made some big saves. Every time we had a chance and thought it was going in, he robbed us a couple times. You’ve got to give credit to Niagara. They played hard.”

Canisius kept frustration at bay and Conacher said the plan was the same as it always is – get pucks deep, get pucks to the net. Eventually something would break. Eventually that spark of Conacher confidence would return.

“I mean, I’ve said this before, it’s confidence,” Conacher said. “Once you get that goal, your level of play increases. You want the puck. I was in a little slump. I wasn’t getting any goals. Once the floodgates open you just play with confidence and it’s so much easier.”

The floodgates started at 10:50 of the second when Jimmy Mazza made a solid play to put the puck up the ice and on Conacher’s stick. The two were joined by Mike Sabatini for a three-on-one rush. Conacher was thinking of shooting, but the Niagara defender laid out in an attempt to break up the play. Instead, Conacher accelerated, went to his backhand and fed Sabatini, who tipped the puck past a sprawling Teichroeb.

Conacher then scored his 20th goal of the season 2:55 later on the power play. He took the puck at the top of the faceoff circle, cut through the high slot and used the Niagara defense and Cuddemi as a screen to get the puck by Teichroeb.

With the goal, he became the fourth player in Canisius history to have a 20-goal, 20-assist season. His 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) rank third in a season. That goal also proved the game-winner, giving him a Canisius record six game-winners in a season.

But Conacher wasn’t finished. He started the play that led to the Griffs’ third goal – a beautiful finish by Cameron Heath set up by Cuddemi at 7:19 of the third. That goal made all the difference.

“A two-goal lead is one of the most dangerous leads in hockey,” Canisius goalie Simon Hofley said. “But when we came out and scored that third goal in the third period, it’s like a thousand pounds being lifted off your shoulders.”

Hofley made 37 saves in the win, losing his bid for a second straight shutout at 16:51 when Johnny Curran scored an extra-attacker goal. Once again, Hofley credited the team defense that kept most of Niagara’s shots to the outside and limited any rebound opportunities.

“Every team we want to keep to the outside; it makes it easier,” Hofley said. “Me personally, especially with seeing the puck after the first game, I wanted to adjust to being more intense when looking for the puck.”

Combine that quality defense with the offense of the top line and the Griffs feel good about their game heading into the quarterfinals.

“I think the skill level of that top line and our overall skill level was noticeable in the series,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “Once we tightened up our D-zone, I thought we were the better team. We had to ride out a few mistakes but I thought defensively we were very solid. They threw a lot of pucks near the net but I didn’t think they had a lot of Grade A chances, which is all four of our lines committed to the team defense.”

Niagara ended its season at 6-25-6, the fewest wins for the Purple Eagles in 20 seasons of hockey.