The guys with the letters on their sweaters understand. They have a level of knowledge that comes only through playoff experience. The cliché about throwing out records? There’s truth to that. It’s a lesson the young Canisius College hockey team had to learn firsthand.
It started in the regular season, when the Griffs earned a road sweep over Bentley, one of the top teams in Atlantic Hockey, by playing two of their best, most complete games of the season.
Piece of cake this hockey thing is now, right?
The Griffs returned to Buffalo and lost to Sacred Heart, perennially a program that finishes in the bottom third of Atlantic Hockey.
Then they lost twice to regular-season champion Robert Morris.
Then they dropped the first game of the playoffs to No. 10 Niagara, in HarborCenter no less.
On a five-game losing streak, the Griffs had to make a decision – show up and play or go home and sulk.
“It was either going to bring out the best or worst in us and I think it brought out the best,” junior alternate captain Geoff Fortman said. “Guys really bought in. It’s do or die. I think we played the right way, brought our work ethic and team play.”
Canisius rallied to win the first-round series with Niagara and now the No. 7 Griffs (12-20-5) take on No. 2 Air Force (18-11-5) in the best-of-three quarterfinal series in Colorado. The teams meet Friday and Saturday at 9:05 with Game Three, if necessary, at 9:05 p.m. on Sunday.
“I think we learned a lesson we needed to learn in the first round,” Fortman said. “Even playing the second-to-last team in the conference who really didn’t have a great regular season, they were an extremely tough out for us and we had to fight and claw to get past them. I think there’s a healthy respect for Air Force. They had our number this year. I think we can learn this lesson of how hard we had to work just to beat the 10th seed and I think that will take us into,” the quarterfinals.
Senior captain Ralph Cuddemi has been here before. His freshman year the Griffs were a No. 7 seed and advanced to play at Air Force in the quarterfinals. Canisius swept that series, advancing to the Atlantic Hockey semifinals and eventually their first conference championship.
“It gives me a little motivation,” said Cuddemi, who was named to Atlantic Hockey’s second team. Linemate Shane Conacher was a first team selection.
Also a first-team selection – Air Force goalie Shane Starrett. The freshman led the conference in goals-against average (1.68) and ranked third in save percentage (.931) with four shutouts this season.
Starrett played in three of the four regular season games between the Falcons and Canisuis, going 1-1-1 making 68 saves while letting in seven goals.
The teams split the series in Colorado in early December, and then Air Force took three points against the Griffs in HarborCenter Jan. 39-30.
Finding offense against Starrett could be difficult for Canisius, but the Griffs have been experience against hot goaltenders, stymied by Niagara’s Jackson Teichreob before finding a solution.
“You just want to keep sticking with it,” Cuddemi said. “You kind of worry when you’re not getting chances and we were getting quite a few chances. You just want to stay motivated on the bench and keep it even keel. We played with a little more fire when our backs were against the wall. It’s cool to see that we have that within our team.”