If you ever wondered what coaches mean when they say a player has a high hockey IQ, let Matt Hoover offer a real-world example.
With the game tied in the second period, Hoover jumped off the bench for his shift and corralled a turnover in the neutral zone. He passed the puck to Grant Meyer, a decision he partially regretted, but continued toward the net, to the left side of the goaltender. That put Hoover in position to jump on a loose puck and definitively put it in the net.
The goal midway through the second period proved to be the game-winner as Canisius College earned its 11th straight win over the Niagara Purple Eagles, 2-1, in an Atlantic Hockey matchup in HarborCenter Friday night.
"I'm just trying to not sit back, but anticipate what's going to happen and try to read off others to be in the right spot to capitalized on chances," said Hoover.
"He reads the play very well," Canisius coach Trevor Large said about Hoover. "Everyone talks about hockey IQ. He's a hockey IQ type of player and he has an extreme compete level to him. Those two things combined really make his size irrelevant. He's not the biggest guy (Hoover is listed at 5-10) but he's a high-IQ, a high-compete player."
That compete level has been key for Hoover and needed by the Griffs. The sophomore had both of the Griffs goals on Friday for his third two-goal outing in the last six games. In that span he has eight points.
"I haven't changed anything," Hoover said. "I'm just trying to play my game and play as hard as I can every shift. Obviously contributing is nice. Winning is more important especially at this time of the year. … Scoring is nice but when we're winning it makes it a lot better, too."
Winning is something Canisius got back to on Friday, ending a three-game skid and securing at least second place, a first-round bye, and home ice for the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinal series.
And while Hoover likes winning best, his latest offensive output will be key for the Griffs as they've struggled with injuries.
Canisius was without senior captain Ryan Schmelzer for the fifth straight game. Also out with injury were Jeff Murray (fourth game) and Jesse Pereira (third game).
"When they've been out the last few weeks, a lot of guys have stepped up," Hoover said. "I feel like, you know what, they’re out, I've got to step up my game and help the team. But that's everyone's mentality. Everyone has that mindset to come out a little harder and push a little harder."
Hoover gave the Griffs a 1-0 lead at 7:01 of the opening period, a big confidence boost for Canisius which improved to 14-1-1 when scoring the first goal this year.
Niagara tied the game at 15:59 when freshman Justin Kendall completed a three-on-two break started by Derian Plouffe and Eric Cooley.
Then Hoover scored at 10:25 of the second, giving the Griffs a 2-1 lead. And Canisius has definitely learned how to play with the lead and close out games.
The Griffs are 11-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes this year. That mark goes to 28-0-0 dating back to the start of last season.
"When we're up like that, we just know that we don't want to play defensive," said Canisius goalie Daniel Urbani. "We want to keep pushing. We did a great job in the third locking it up. Defensively we got stronger as the game progressed."
Urbani finished with 18 saves including turning aside 10 Niagara shots in the third period as the Purple Eagles had a good push and an opportunity in the final 30 seconds to tie the game. With goaltender Brian Wilson on the bench for the extra attacker, Canisius defenseman Jack Stander took a boarding penalty giving Niagara a 6-on-4 for 33 seconds and an offensive zone draw. The Purple Eagles won the draw, but couldn't get a shot on Urbani and the Griffs defense cleared the zone to end the game.
While the Griffs have locked up a top-two seed in the Atlantic Hockey tournament, Niagara is hoping to avoid a last-place finish for the fourth straight season. But the league is so tight, the Purple Eagles can finish anywhere from sixth to ninth, depending on the results around the conference as the regular season ends Saturday.
Canisius and Niagara will close out their regular seasons with a rematch at 7:05 p.m. in Dwyer Arena.