When Canisius needed someone to step up in the moment, Ryan Schmelzer was there, in the slot with his stick ready to tip the puck.
It was just the right shot from Jimmy Mazza and just the right tip from Schmelzer who scored the game-winner for Canisius in the closing minutes.
Schmelzer’s goal with 1:15 left gave the Golden Griffins a 2-1 win over Niagara and a sweep of the Purple Eagles in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series in HarborCenter Saturday night.
“We knew when we had the opportunity we had to capitalize on it,” Schmelzer said. “We talked about it before that when Jimmy had the puck on that side, the shot-tip might be open because the goalie comes way out and they all go to Jim. So we tried, I got a stick on it and it went in.”
“It was a massive, super-important moment, but they did what we practiced,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “They didn’t get mesmerized by the moment. I thought Schmelzer was a man down the stretch. Played a ton of minutes.”
The moment was big for the Griffs. The win advanced Canisius to the Atlantic Hockey semifinals for the fourth time in the last five years and gave them six straight wins over Niagara this season.
The loss ended the season for Niagara and the Purple Eagles entered the game with urgency and intensity. Niagara was tenacious, had quality scoring chances on the offensive end with Jackson Teichroeb making massive saves on the other end to keep the game scoreless through two periods.
Felix Chamberland broke the tie at 3:06 of the third when he took a pass from Schmelzer on a power-play rush and buried his shot, finally solving Teichroeb, who had stymied the Griffs offense all night.
The Griffs then took a pair of interference penalties and with Mazza and Jesse Pereira in the box, Niagara tied the game, Sam Rennaker won the faceoff over to Johnny Curran who passed it back to Vinny Muto at the blue line. Muto took a few strides, shot through traffic, and hit the back of the net.
The goal ended the shutout streak of Canisius goalie Charles Williams at 209:33.
The Griffs five penalties in the third period, twice giving Niagara a 5-on-3 advantage. While the Purple Eagles scored once on the power play, they had just seven shots in their five opportunities as the Canisius penalty kill was aggressive and Williams was effective.
“We keep saying in the locker room the penalty kill is our most important special teams,” Schmelzer said. “Power plays can win some games, penalty kills make you go far. We did what we preached all year – get in lanes, get pucks out, just be hard and tenacious against them.”
The penalty kill brought the Griffs back to the semifinals. As the top seed Canisius (21-10-7) will face the lowest remaining seed at 4:30 p.m. Friday in Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. The two-game sweep of Niagara saw Canisius get better at the most important time of the year.
“I thought of the six periods we played this weekend we got better with each period,” Smith said. “It’s hard to beat a team six times in a season. We know each other very well. It’s hard to end someone’s season. I thought that we showed some youth in trying to do too much in taking some of those penalties, but Schmelzer really carried us. He was calm on the bench, and just worked and made the play that was there.”
Niagara ends its season 5-31-3.