LEWISTON – The last-place Canisius hockey team was optimistic when the Golden Griffins were matched up against rival Niagara in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey Association tournament, even though they had been winless in four games against the Purple Eagles during the regular season.
The steady goaltending of freshman Matt Ladd, a Getzville native who joined the team midseason and stabilized what had been its greatest weakness, factored into their confidence, as did a pair of ties against sixth-seeded Niagara in the teams’ most recent meetings in late February.
“It felt like we were playing good hockey at the end of the year,” Canisius coach Trevor Large said.
The optimism was warranted. But Ladd and the Griffs were unable to hang onto a late lead.
Niagara junior forward Ben Sokay scored twice, including the tying goal with 11.9 seconds remaining in regulation, and Justin Kendall scored 9:53 into the second overtime to give the Purple Eagles a 5-4 victory Friday night at Dwyer Arena. Niagara has a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three playoff series and improved to 3-0-2 against Canisius this season, pushing the No. 11-seeded Griffs to the brink of elimination.
Game 2 is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday. Game 3, if necessary, is at 4 p.m. Sunday. All games are in Lewiston.
“What’s important now is how our guys take care of themselves,” Niagara coach Jason Lammers said. “This is the commitment they’ve made to each other as a group and our culture, to be part of a movement, not a moment, and they’re doing a great job and I’m sure they’ll be ready to go (Saturday).”
Lammers declined to make players available for comment, saying it was late.
Dylan Mills assisted on the game-winning goal. Jared Brandt assisted on the tying goal, after the Purple Eagles pulled goalie Brian Wilson for an extra attacker with 2:26 remaining in the third period.
"For better or worse we’ve been in that spot a lot this year," Lammers said, "so we’ve got real good practice at it. We’re comfortable and confident in that situation."
Wilson stopped 32 of 36 shots.
Canisius defenseman Jimmy Mazza scored twice and added an assist for the Griffs, while Ladd, who had been unbeaten in his last four starts, stopped 38 of 43 shots.
He joined Canisius (11-19-5 overall, 8-17-4 conference) in mid-February after playing with the New Jersey Junior Titans of the North American Hockey League.
Niagara (13-17-5 overall, 12-12-5 conference) owned a 3-2 lead after two periods.
But Mazza scored his second goal of the game just 41 seconds into the third to tie the score at 3-3, and assisted on a goal by freshman forward Mitchell Martan, who gave the Griffs a 4-3 lead with 4:26 remaining in regulation. Cameron Heath also earned an assist on the goal.
“I felt like we were playing really well and we were taking it to them in the third period,” Large said. “I told the guys, ‘Don’t change.’ … There wasn’t a need to make any strategic change at all and I really liked how we played in both overtimes, as well. It’s just not our night.”
The teams traded goals within a span of 51 seconds in the second period.
Mazza tied the score at 2-2 with an even strength goal assisted by Casey Jerry 6:53 into the second. But Niagara quickly answered when Johnny Curran buried a feed from Zac Herrmann 7:44 into the frame. Tyler Hayes picked up an assist, as well.
Niagara led 2-1 after the first period, with defenseman Noah Delmas and Sokay each scoring on the power play.
Delmas opened the scoring after Canisius was whistled for too many men on the ice, giving Niagara a 1-0 lead with 6:05 remaining in the first.
Delmas, who extended his points streak to five consecutive games (four goals, three assists), tied freshman forward Ludwig Stenlund with a team-high 34 points during the regular season, the fifth-most by a defenseman in the country.
Eric Cooley and Justin Kendall earned assists on the goal.
But the lead was short-lived.
Canisius forward Matt Hoover answered with a power play goal of his own just two minutes later, after Niagara’s Nic Mucci was called for slashing, knotting the score at 1-1 with 4:03 remaining in the period. It was his 11th goal this season. Dylan McLaughlin picked up the assist.
Sokay re-established the Purple Eagles’ lead with 40 seconds remaining in the period, scoring his sixth goal of the season after Canisius forward Grant Meyer received two minutes for roughing.
The winner of the first-round playoff series advances to the best-of-three conference quarterfinals from March 15-17 against an opponent to be determined.
The semifinals and championship game are March 22-23 at Harborcenter.
The Atlantic tournament champ earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament.