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Canisius falls short of its own lofty expectations

The disappointment was heavy.

Few outside the Canisius dressing room expected the Golden Griffins to contend for another Atlantic Hockey championship. The senior class was too undecorated. The freshmen unproven. The goaltending suspect. They misfired to start the season, salvaging ties to stay afloat but heading into the second semester with the predicted middle-of-the-pack standing.

But guys in the Canisius dressing room didn’t buy into predictions. They bought into themselves.

The Griffs battled and frustrated RIT, one of the hottest teams in the country over the past month, in a 2-1 loss in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals late Friday night at Blue Cross Arena.

Canisius finished its season 18-12-7. Its .581 winning percentage is the second best in the program’s Division I era while the 18 wins rank as the third most.

They advanced to the semifinals for the third straight year after winning it all in 2013 and losing in the title game in 2014. Getting back to the tournament’s final four isn’t easy. The Griffs appreciate that, but the 10-member senior class also knows the culture has changed, making the sting of disappointment a little bit more.

“No one in our room believed we were going to finish sixth this year,” said senior captain Doug Jessey. “We knew what we had. We believed right from the start if we played well we’d make it to this tournament. Going into the weekend we knew if we seized every moment and did it right we were going to come out on top. But a couple moments get past you and they make a play.

“I think the program is in a better place than when we came. Nothing against the guys before us. We just had a little bit more success because of the path they laid for us. It’s an expectation now to make it at least to here and we’ve had some success here. We weren’t satisfied with just making it here. This is a disappointment for us.”

The expectations changed with time.

“Looking back on our sophomore year we were excited to get here. I know we won it, but I don’t think we would have been disappointed with just making it here,” Jessey said. “This stings a little bit more than maybe it would have in the past. I think that’s a good thing. The expectation to win here is here. Success is why we come here.”

Jessey was a key component for the Griffs’ defense, which proved to be the team’s strength in the second half of the season. While RIT’s top line is celebrated, and for good reason, Canisius held the trio to one goal in the semifinal on a late first-period turnover.

Keegan Asmundson directed the defense from the net. The senior goaltender turned a mediocre beginning into the best performance by a goalie in Griffs’ history. Asmundson set single-season program records for goals against (1.96) and save percentage (.930) – numbers which never were expected from a senior who spent most of his career as Tony Capobianco’s backup.

That goes for most of the senior class. While Cody Freeman and Mitch McCrank had been consistent offensive threats for the Griffs, the group was largely a collection of uncelebrated role players who succeeded on the power of the collective.

“We’ve got 10 seniors and there’s no 100-point scorers, no perennial all stars in that group,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “What they did is they brought a passion to win. Our goal as coaches is to be the hardest team to play against. … They’re a group that bought into what we were trying to do.

“When they stepped foot on campus there was no promise of a rink. There was no promise of league championships, league championship tournaments. A moment like this, I think about how important team is to those guys because those 10 guys set the tone in the room.”

If the freshmen class learns the lessons from the graduating seniors, the Griffs have mountains of potential returning.

Ryan Schmelzer and Nolan Sheeran made immediate impacts, but the entire group played with more poise and confidence as they learned the speed and physical play of the collegiate game. Forwards Mike Sabatini and Jeff Murray were better late in the season, along with defensemen Jack Stander and David Bennett. Goaltender Reilly Turner had a solid freshman campaign despite taking a backseat during Asmundson’s second-half hot streak.

Sophomore Shane Conacher and junior Ralph Cuddemi created one of the more exciting line combinations in Griffs’ history, combining for 76 points. Cuddemi will enter his senior year with 81 points while Conacher’s 60 points through his first two seasons tied for second most in program history. Assuming defenseman Chris Rumble returns for his senior season of eligibility (he is scheduled to finish his undergraduate degree this May), Canisius would start the season with one good-looking power play.

Niagara’s season to forget

While the Purple Eagles had a strong finish to the season, including a win over Robert Morris and a first-round sweep of Holy Cross, their 7-28-4 record comes in as the worst in program history.

But the number to chew on for Niagara – 163 man games lost to injury. That’s a lot in a 39-game season and a luck-of-the-draw the Purple Eagles could not overcome. Starting goaltender Jackson Teichroeb missed two months with a hamstring injury, came back too soon and didn’t regain his form, game-shape or confidence until the final weeks of the season.

The offense never clicked, goal scoring was a struggle and consistency – sometimes within a shift – was difficult to find.

Junior Hugo Turcotte led the Purple Eagle with 10 goals. Where once his speed only made him the first player down the ice, Turcotte has learned to turn that speed into scoring opportunities.

Niagara’s sophomore class struggled with injury and slumps but the experience could make them mentally stronger as juniors.

The good news for Niagara lies in the tricky nature of potential. There were moments of great play from the freshmen class, particularly Keegan Harper, Rob Angiolella, Stan Dzakhov and Derian Plouffe. They have the skill to be special players in Atlantic Hockey if they can stay healthy and work through the negatives of their rookie campaign.