No one expected this. The Canisius Golden Griffins weren't expected to do much this season, what with two of the best offensive players in program history gone and an uncertain goaltending situation. But the Griffs proved that the sum can be greater than its parts in rattling off a 17-game winning streak, winning the regular season Atlantic Hockey title and advancing to the conference semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
No one also expected Niagara to fall further down the rabbit hole, winning just three regular season games and seeing the school part ways with a coach who has been part of the program since its inception.
So what did we learn this college hockey season in Western New York and what does the future hold for Canisius and Niagara? Five things to know in a postseason analysis:
1. Great goaltending can take you far, but great goaltending and good leadership are a magical combination. In the official archived history of Canisius hockey, Charles Williams will have played just one season. An injury during his four-year career at Ferris State allowed him one more year of eligibility and he chose to take a chance on Canisius. To say he made the most of his opportunity is the understatement of the year.
Williams set school marks for goals against average (1.82) and save percentage (.943) in a single season. His totals surpassed the marks set by Keegan Asmundson during the 2014-15 campaign (1.96 and .930). He is a Top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award.
His play allowed the Griffs, fielding a roster heavy with sophomores and freshmen, time to get their feet underneath them. More than that, his leadership along with that of senior captain Geoff Fortman established a chemistry and a trust that started in the locker room and transitioned onto the ice.
"It was a special season. You can kind of see that with the way the regular season went but we had a bond in our locker room that you can’t really describe unless you’re there," Fortman said after the Griffs lost in the semifinals to Robert Morris. "It makes it tough. It didn’t feel like that’s how it was supposed to end. I think if we get another chance at that game we’re winning it but it was a special group. It will always be an honor to be part of it."
"This year is something I couldn't imagine, couldn't have drawn up over the summer," Williams said. "To not know what I was getting into but as soon as I stepped on campus from Day 1, I was really happy to be here. Every day over the course of the year, we had ups and downs, but to be a part of what we did here in my last year of college hockey is something I will never forget. I will always bleed blue and gold."
2. Next year is a fresh start for Canisius, but one that comes with experience. Canisius graduates three players -- Fortman, Williams and Josh Kielich, who did not play this season with an injury. But just because the Griffs return a ton of players, doesn't mean success is guaranteed.
“We talk a lot about it being a one-year journey,” Canisiuis coach Dave Smith said. “This is not four years for the senior class. It’s a one-year journey and this year the commitment and the humility of our seniors led the way for something special. What’s going to happen next year is yet to be defined. Obviously we like what we’re returning but the strength of our team this year was leadership and chemistry.”
Leadership and chemistry aside, the Griffs return a ton of talent and Fortman believes the next wave of Griffs hockey will have the experience to make the most of their skill.
"I think the guys that are returning learned the lessons this year in what it takes to win a regular season championship which in a lot of ways is a lot harder to do than to win a postseason championship," Fortman said. "But they learned the difference between the regular season and the postseason. It prepares the guys moving forward, the freshmen and the sophomores who hadn’t experienced this before. They know what it’s like and what it takes and they’ll be ready.
3. Niagara needs a rebuild. Two days after losing to Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals, Niagara fired head coach Dave Burkholder. There have been mixed reactions to Burkholder's dismissal. Some felt Burkholder deserved better after being with the program since its inception in 1996 and its head coach since 2001. Others felt it was time for both to move on.
Something clearly needed to happen on Monteagle Ridge. The program, once the shining example of what Division I hockey could look like in Western New York, has had three seasons of troubling results. This year they set a program record for fewest wins with just five total and only three in the regular season. Injuries certainly played a role, but injuries have been an issue for three straight seasons in which the team went 18-84-13.
Who might Niagara hire? Greg Gardner is the most popular name. He was part of the first hockey class at Niagara and played professionally in Europe before returning to Atlantic Hockey as an assistant coach. He's currently with Mercyhurst.
It's difficult financial times for schools like Niagara and that can hamper a search for a head coach. The Purple Eagles have also fallen behind in the facilities game as the on-campus rink, Dwyer Arena, has been dwarfed by RIT's Polisseni Center and Canisius' home in HarborCenter. Dwyer was last upgraded in 2007 with the addition of premium seating.
4. While there is work that needs to be done, Niagara's cupboard is not bare. The Purple Eagles could play some good hockey and they showed that in the postseason. Niagara upset RIT in the first round and played perhaps their best game of the season in their last game, a 2-1 loss to Canisius in the quarterfinals.
Niagara lacks star power on its roster but has quality players including Stanislav Dzakhov, Kris Spriggs and Derian Plouffe. Collectively their defense needs to improve and goaltending has been inconsistent.
5. Atlantic Hockey should look for a new postseason home. The official attendance for Friday's first semifinal between Canisius and Robert Morris in Blue Cross Arena was 200. It was a whopping 630 for the second semi between Air Force and Army West Point.
Did the 4:30 p.m. puck drop for the Griffs-Colonials matchup play a factor in attendance? Sure it did.
Did the distance of Army West Point and Air Force play a factor in attendance? Most likely.
But even in years when RIT is playing in Rochester, the attendance bump doesn't do much to change the overall tournament atmosphere. Last year's championship game, which RIT won, had an attendance of 3,372. Good numbers until you consider that Blue Cross Arena was less than 25 percent full and the optics on television in championship photos is, well, not good.
Atlantic Hockey and Blue Cross Arena have an agreement through 2019, but it's time for the league to start considering other venues. First Arena in Elmira seats 3,784. Erie Insurance Arena in Erie, Pa. holds 6,833 while Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton holds 4,679. The league could also go to campus sites with the higher seed hosting through the championship, much like the WCHA is doing.