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Plenty on the line as Niagara-Canisius hockey rivalry renews

Typically, this game is about the rivalry. It's about Canisus vs. Niagara. It's about keeping your spot as alpha dog or playing spoiler and getting the chance to sing "nah-nah-nah, we beat you."

Not this year.

For the first time in the regular season, there's more than just bragging rights on the line when Canisius and Niagara meet for their first of two home-and-home weekends.

The Purple Eagles are in first place in Atlantic Hockey with 17 points (8-2-1). Canisius is in second with 16 points (8-4-0).

This has never happened in the previous seven seasons both teams have been part of Atlantic Hockey. It gives an already healthy rivalry a little added kick.

"We realize we represent something more than just the hockey team here. This is about representing the team, the university and the Niagara Falls community," first-year Niagara coach Jason Lammers said.

"There's a 7-year-old somewhere watching this game who is going to play for one of these programs down the road or this sparks their interest in hockey."

That's not just a theory. That's something first-year Canisius coach Trevor Large knows very well from talking with assistant coach and former Golden Griffin Scott Moser along with the team's current captain, Buffalo native Ryan Schmelzer.

"I know from conversations with those guys, they had that moment at age 7 or 12 where you're local, you go and watch the college hockey teams that are 20 minutes from each other to see what those games are like, what the fans are like, what the rinks are like and I think they add that to the list of schools they really want to go to," Large said.

The all-time series is at 21-21-4. Friday's game is at 7:05 p.m. in Niagara's Dwyer Arena while Saturday's game is at 4:35 p.m. in HarborCenter.

Here's what you need to know, past and present, as the teams prepare to faceoff:

Where we started: Canisius has a longer overall hockey history, but both programs made their official Division I debuts in the 1998-99 season. The Griffs played in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which morphed into Atlantic Hockey. Niagara was a founding member of College Hockey America. When the CHA folded, the Purple Eagles moved to Atlantic Hockey beginning with the 2010-11 season.

Best of the early years: One of the best years of the rivalry was 1999-2000, the last time both teams were good in the regular season. The Griffs went 21-10-4, losing to Iona in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Niagara went 30-8-4, won College Hockey American and earned its first at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Purps were nervous, though, after losing to Canisius, 2-1, on Feb. 22. The CHA did not have an automatic bid and Niagara was afraid that loss to the Griffs would spoil their chances.

That NCAA tourney magic: The magical run for both teams was the 2012-13 season. Niagara (23-10-5) spent the year in the national rankings and had a high enough PairWise rank to make the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large, the first for Atlantic Hockey.It needed that PairWise ranking  after running into a hot Canisius team that knocked them off, 5-3 , in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. The Griffs finished the season on an eight-game winning streak to make their first, and only, NCAA Tournament. Niagara has four appearances in the tournament and one win (over New Hampshire in 2000).

Niagara leads the league. The Purple Eagles are 9-5-1 overall and earned a national ranking for the first time in four years. Niagara was No. 20 in the latest poll. The last time Niagara was ranked was in October 2013, coming off an NCAA Tournament year.

Niagara's top scorers: Derian Plouffe (9 goals, 10 assists), Tanner Lomsnes (12 goals, 5 assists), Noah Delmas (1 goal, 16 assists).

Niagara's goaltender: Freshman Brian Wilson has a .909 save percentage and a 2.44 goals against average.

Canisius is the defending champ. The Griffs won the regular season last year. They are on a five-game winning streak in Atlantic Hockey and coming off a 5-1 non-conference loss to No. 3 Clarkson.

Canisius' top scorers: Dylan McLaughlin (8 goals, 13 assists), Ryan Schmelzer (7 goals, 10 assists), Nick Hutchison (6 goals, 6 assists).

Canisius' goaltender: Daniel Urbani has a .909 save percentage and a 2.97 goals against average.

Fast stats: Canisius and Niagara are 1-2 in the league in goal scoring with the Griffs averaging 3.36 per game and the Purps 3.27. The Griffs have the best power play, converting 27.1 percent of the time, but Niagara has five shorthanded goals. Canisius also has had to kill the most penalties in the league as the team has 77 penalty-kill attempts on the season.

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