ROCHESTER – The Canisius hockey team had its season ended in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals Friday at Blue Cross Arena, losing to defending-champion Air Force, 3-0.
The seventh-seeded Falcons took control with two second-period goals and used smothering defense and a strong game from goaltender Billy Christopoulos to shut down the dangerous attack of No. 2 Canisius.
The win sent Air Force to Saturday’s championship against fifth-ranked Robert Morris, which upset top-seed Mercyhurst in overtime earlier Friday, 5-4.
Canisius finished 19-17-2 in its first season under head coach Trevor Large. Final shots were 37-24 Air Force.
"I was expecting exactly what this game was, honestly. At least from them," Large said of Air Force's stingy defense. "I thought it was going to be their 'dump pucks and filter it toward the net' versus our ability to pass and skate and try to showcase some of our skill.
"They play the way a lot of good teams play. They play hard and they block shots and they play tough on you to get it around the net," Large added. "We couldn't get pucks through. We had zone time, we just couldn't generate shots on net, more scoring chances. They made it tough."
Canisius opened with a strong first period, outshooting Air Force 12-9, but wasn’t able to beat Christopoulos. The Falcons, who entered the game ranked first in the conference and 11th nationally in goals allowed per game at 2.31, took control in the second, limiting Canisius to just five shots on net while getting two pucks past Daniel Urbani.
Zach Mirageas’ point shot got deflected in front and bounced off Kyle Haak before trickling in for the game’s opening goal six minutes into the second period. Canisius’ Grant Meyer beat his man but got stopped on a deke with eight minutes left in the period, and Air Force doubled its lead four minutes later when top-scorer Erik Baskin found of the back of the net after digging out a loose puck in the slot.
Air Force all but sealed the win early in the third when Matt Serratore, the nephew of head coach Frank Serratore, beat Urbani to make it 3-0. Canisius coach Trevor Large wasn’t able pull the goalie until the final two minutes.
Canisius did get one puck passed Christopoulos in the first period, but the goal didn’t count because the referee clearly whistled the play dead before it was jammed in.
Seniors: Canisius’ biggest losses for next season are top-line forwards Ryan Schmelzer and Jeff Murray and defenseman Jack Stander. Schmelzer leaves Canisius 10th in career points (105) and tied for ninth in goals (40) and assists (65). Junior Dylan McLaughlin, a Hobey Baker finalist who finished the regular season tied for sixth nationally in points, said he expected to return for his senior year.
"I haven't heard anything (about signing a professional contract), so I'll be back here next year," McLaughlin said.
Top-seed struggles: Atlantic Hockey has had trouble getting its top teams through to the NCAA Tournament in recent years, and this year will be another example.
The first two rounds of the playoffs are best-of-three series. But once teams convene in Rochester for the semifinals and championship, it’s one-and-done.
With more randomness added to the equation, upsets have been common. The conference’s No. 1 seed hasn’t won a title since 2012 and has only played for the championship one other time. The league, already the lowest in Division I, has awarded its NCAA autobid to seeds 7, 5, 5, 5, 3 and 2 in the last six years, and another 5 or 7 will go this year.
Why the struggles?
"That's a great question. And the answer is the parity in our league," Frank Serratore said, pointing to nonconference success and the jam-packed standings as evidence. "Is there a reason why the top seeds are having trouble? Yeah, that's because everybody's pretty darn good. ... Most of us survived our way here as opposed to winning our way here."
How they got here: Canisius won its quarterfinal series with American International last weekend, 2-1, while Air Force beat Army on the road, 2-1.
No concussion spotters here: Canisius goalie Daniel Urbani took a helmet-to-helmet hit while going down to cover a puck seven minutes into the game. He stayed down momentarily and was not checked on by a trainer before remaining in the game.
Resolved: At long last, we have an answer to the question, “Is it Atlantic Hockey Association or Conference?” Even the league website uses both names. But the league put a large board ad at center ice with the words “Atlantic Hockey Conference Tournament.”
At last, an answer to the question, “Is it Atlantic Hockey Association or Conference?” pic.twitter.com/5hMqybCqek
— Nick Veronica (@NickVeronica) March 17, 2018
Next: The Air Force faces Robert Morris in the championship at 7:35 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of last year’s championship.
Recent Atlantic Hockey championship results
2018: 5-Air Force vs. 7-Robert Morris
2017: 2-Air Force over 4-Robert Morris
2016: 5-RIT over 1-Robert Morris
2015: 3-RIT over 5-Mercyhurst
2014: 5-Robert Morris over 7-Canisius
2013: 7-Canisius over 6-Mercyhurst
2012: 1-Air Force over 3-RIT