ROCHESTER – The jinx lives. Not that Canisius believes in jinxes. If anything, the Golden Griffins believe in possibilities. Picked ninth in the conference pre-season poll the Griffs won their first Atlantic Hockey regular season title and earned the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament. They had a nation-best 17-game unbeaten streak and one of the best goaltenders in the country.
But it all ended Friday night in a 6-2 semifinal loss to the Robert Morris Colonials in Blue Cross Arena. This marks the fifth straight year the No. 1 seed in Atlantic Hockey will not win the tournament title and earn the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s very simple,” said Canisius coach Dave Smith when asked why the top seed has failed to win the title the last five years. “Good teams.”
“The top seed is a marathon and this is a one-game scenario. … To me it’s nothing special. It’s what you guys write about. It’s not a jinx. It’s a credit to all the teams in the league.”
Robert Morris knows all about that one-game scenario. The Colonials won the regular season the previous two years but lost in the league’s final four weekend. This year, they advance as a No. 4 seed to Saturday’s championship game.
“I want to congratulate Canisius on an outstanding season,” Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. “I know how hard it is as a No. 1 seed to have your season ended here in Rochester. You feel like you’re a failure but at the end of the day you have a lot to be proud of. It’s tough for them to see that right now. We dealt with it the last two years. I know what they’re feeling.”
What the Colonials are feeling now is their own renewed sense of postseason possibility. They brought the league’s second-best offense to Rochester and the team was able to solve the riddle of Charles Williams, the senior transfer for Canisius who is a Top 10 Hobey Baker Finalist and was Atlantic Hockey’s Player of the Year.
Robert Morris took a 2-0 first-period lead taking advantage of Canisius turnovers. A turnover at the blue line led to a goal from Spencer Dorowicz at 12:01 while a turnover behind the net allowed Daniel Mantenuto to score with 12 seconds left in the period. It was a hot start for Robert Morris and a slow one for the Griffs.
“As a group we came out a little on our edges, on our heels,” Williams said. “They capitalized and the goal they scored at the end of the first period with 12 seconds left gave them the momentum. I thought that was a huge turning point. I think as the game went on, we showed who we are and I’m really proud to see how we stayed together as a team and played for 60 minutes.”
Brady Ferguson, the league’s leading scorer, made it a 3-0 game in the second period. He added a second goal on the power play late in the third, giving Robert Morris a 4-1 lead before completing his hat trick with an empty-net goal.
The Colonials were able to do what few teams have been able to do this season – get to Williams. He entered the game with the best save percentage in the country.
“We wanted to make him feel uncomfortable in the crease,” Schooley said of his team’s approach to playing Williams. “We wanted to be around the net a lot and get a lot of traffic. Niagara scored a similar goal to the one that Brady did. We showed them video of that goal – good net-front presence that backed him into his crease and you get one high. He can’t get out and take away the angle.
“You just want to make him feel uncomfortable. When a guy’s on a streak like that you want to be around him a lot and be sure you’re getting to the net-front area.”
Meanwhile, the Griffs had trouble finishing their chances on the offensive end. There were plenty of opportunities, even in the first period when the Colonials held an 11-6 advantage in shots. But Canisius couldn’t get the puck past Robert Morris freshman Francis Marotte until the third period.
“We had a couple of chances in front of the net that we usually capitalize on,” said Canisius freshman Nick Hutchison who put Canisius on the board with a power play goal in the third. “As the game went on we got to the net more. We were playing desperate hockey.”
“I liked the way we played,” Smith said. “We made some mistakes and you can’t win this weekend if you don’t have great goaltending, great power play, great special teams, are great five-on-five. We didn’t check all the boxes all the time. … Give credit to Robert Morris; they capitalized on their chances and limited our opportunities to score. It was a good game for us but we didn’t win. Unfortunately that’s what right at this moment is front and center in our story. But it’s not a defining moment for our season or how hard we worked and bonded together to push through like we did.”