LEWISTON – Canisius needed a win and help Saturday night to clinch the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title.
The Griffs took care of business on their end, coming back to beat Niagara 3-2 at Dwyer Arena on Felix Chamberland’s last-minute goal, but Mercyhurst also won Saturday to clinch first place.
Canisius finished 17-15-2 overall and 16-11-0 in Atlantic Hockey to take second, but any disappointment derived from that result was quickly put into perspective by Canisius coach Trevor Large’s son Brody, who offered a hug before the postgame press conference and asked if daddy now has the whole week off.
“Do I have a whole week off? Yes, I do,” Large said, smiling. “Good news, right?”
Indeed. Canisius gets to relax next weekend after clinching a first-round bye in the conference tournament. It will host a best-of-three quarterfinal series March 9-11 at HarborCenter.
Niagara (11-19-3, 10-14-3 AHC) was less fortunate. It could’ve earned a home series next weekend with a win and help, but instead finished ninth overall and will have to travel to Springfield, Mass. for a prequarterfinal series against American International that opens Friday. But Niagara did get help in a different form Saturday, as Army beat Sacred Heart to prevent Niagara from finishing in last place for the fourth year in a row.
“It’s a great feeling,” Large said of earning the week off. “I know one of the things we wanted to check at the beginning of the year is a top-5 (finish), hopefully a top-4 where you can get a bye and then a home weekend in the playoffs.
“The best team won the regular season,” he added. “Now we get a chance to see who’s going to be the best team in the playoffs.”
The key for success in the playoffs, Large said, is to “bottle that third period” that lifted Canisius to victory over Niagara.
A sloppy but entertaining game tightened up in the final 20 minutes as both teams stopped turning the puck over in their own end and fought for the decisive goal in a 2-2 game. Canisius’ Nolan Sheeran got behind the Niagara defense with four minutes to play but Brian Wilson came up with a glove save to keep the game tied. Niagara responded with a flurry in front of the Canisius goal, but Daniel Urbani kept the puck out.
Then, in the final minute, a Canisius rush resulted in a blocked shot that fell to the feet of Chamberland, whose quick shot was past Wilson before he could react. The Griffs mobbed their goal-scorer, unaware the out-of-town results had shifted against their favor.
“I don’t know if we’ve played better period all year than what it was in the third period,” Large said. “So I know as we’re watching the scores, we’re going, ‘how are we going to play when a championship is on the line?’ I was more than proud of how our guys were in that third period. I thought we battled like crazy, were tenacious on the puck, and Felix got a huge goal for our team. It felt like a championship moment.”
The late loss was the closest Niagara has come to beating Canisius in some time. The win was Canisius’ 12th straight against its rival, dating back to March 2016.
“If that is the top team in the league, that bodes well for now and for the future,” first-year Niagara coach Jason Lammers said.
“That’s why we’re so excited to go into this short-term tournament here of our league playoffs: We believe we’re playing really well. And we just keep pushing the rock – at some point it’s going to tip over to the other side and we’re really going to get rolling.”
McLaughlin watch: Canisius junior Dylan McLaughlin recorded a goal and an assist, lifting his season total to 44 points. That ranks as the fourth-highest output in program history. He also took sole possession of third place in the school’s single-season assist record, with 29. He entered the game third nationally in scoring.
Stat check: Shot attempts favored Niagara, 64-55, but it sent 17 wide, had 11 blocked and put one off the post, which gave Canisius the edge in shots on goal, 37-35. Neither team scored on the power play, each going 0-for-3. Niagara’s penalty kill entered the game ranked 11th nationally at 84.3 percent.
Injury front: Canisius remained with top linemates Ryan Schmelzer and Jeff Murray, who are battling upper-body injuries. “They were very close to this weekend coming back,” Large said. “I have no doubt, with proper rehab, they’ll be ready to go come playoff time. That’ll be a great boost to get those guys back.”
Senior Night: Niagara honored seniors Stanislav Dzakhov, Derian Plouffe, Keegan Harper, Larry Smith and James Roll prior to the game.
Tough second half: Niagara was ranked 20th nationally in the Dec. 4 USCHO.com poll; after that, it closed the year 2-15-2. Canisius swept Niagara the week after it was ranked and subsequently took the 20th spot in the Dec. 11 poll; Canisius ended 7-10-1.