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Niagara finally bests Canisius in Atlantic Hockey tournament

LEWISTON — Finally, Niagara is moving on.

Canisius had knocked the Purple Eagles out of the playoffs in all four of their previous postseason meetings since Niagara joined the Atlantic Hockey Association in 2010, including twice in the last three years. And it had taken overtime to determine the victor in each of their most recent four contests, including the first two games of this best-of-three playoff series.

Double overtime in Game 1 on Friday. Another OT on Saturday afternoon.

And with every skater weary and worn from the grueling pace, Niagara finally, finally came out on top, ending Game 3 and its archrival’s season in regulation with a 2-1 triumph Sunday in the first round of the AHA tournament at Dwyer Arena. Sophomore defenseman Jared Brandt and junior forward Ben Sokay each scored to give the Purple Eagles a 2-0 lead midway through the second period, and Niagara withstood the Griffs’ late two-man advantage to advance to the conference quarterfinals for the first time since 2017.

“It was huge,” Brandt said. “We struggled against them in recent years and to beat them in the playoffs and knock them out and go onto the next round is huge for us. Exciting.”

No. 6-seeded Niagara will face No. 3-seeded Air Force, the two-time defending conference champion, in a best-of-three quarterfinal series Friday through Sunday at Cadet Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo. The Falcons received a first-round bye.

The teams split the regular-season series in Colorado, with Air Force winning 5-0 on Oct. 25 and Niagara winning 2-1 on Oct. 26.

“They’re a fast team and we’re a fast team, so it’ll be fun to be a part of,” Niagara coach Jason Lammers said.

The conference semifinals and championship game are March 22-23 at Harborcenter.

The Atlantic tournament champion earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament.

Canisius sophomore defenseman Logan Gestro scored unassisted, chopping the deficit to 2-1, 14:24 into the second period. Griffs goalie Matt Ladd stopped 20 of 22 shots, including a breakaway by Kris Spriggs to keep it a one-goal game late in the second.

Brian Wilson stopped 28 of 29 shots for Niagara, which just missed a first-round bye, finishing the regular season with an 11-12-5 conference record and a 12-17-5 mark overall.

Canisius entered the series 6-1 against Niagara in Division I playoff action and had dominated the Purple Eagles in recent years, amassing a 15-3-3 record dating to the 2014-15 season.

But the Griffs were seeded 11th after finishing last in the regular-season conference standings, struggling to an 8-16-4 league mark and 11-18-5 overall record.

Niagara was 2-0-2 against Canisius in the regular season, winning the first two games, 5-2 and 9-6, on Nov. 15 and 17. The teams tied in each of their previous two matchups, 2-2 and 3-3, on Feb. 22 and 23.

Canisius, unbeaten in its final four games of the regular season, became a far more formidable opponent once Ladd joined the team in mid-February, stabilizing the Griffs’ goaltending situation after his stint with the New Jersey Junior Titans of the North American Hockey League.

Canisius cycled through four starting goalies this season, not including their projected starter, who missed the season with an injury.

“It’s not a time for excuses by any means,” Canisius coach Trevor Large said, “but there was a lot of things that happened to us in this season, some internal, some external, lots of injuries and … the fact that we could remain together and positive through all of it is unbelievable.”

Niagara defeated Canisius in Game 1, 5-4, in double overtime Friday night.

Canisius won Game 2, 4-3, in overtime Saturday. All three games were in Lewiston.

Brandt thrust his arms overhead after giving the Purple Eagles a 1-0 lead 5:53 into the second period Sunday, with Alex Truscott earning the assist. It was Brandt’s fourth goal of the season.

“It was pretty surreal,” Brandt said. “(Truscott) made a really good shot on goal and the puck was just sitting there. I didn’t really have to do much, so it was pretty crazy. I’m not a big goal scorer, but it was just sitting there and I let it go.”

Sokay doubled Niagara’s advantage 9:22 into the period. He was assisted by Eric Cooley and Tyler Hayes. It was Sokay’s eighth goal of the season and third of the series. He scored twice in Game 1, including the tying goal with 11.9 seconds remaining in regulation.

Both goals came at even strength, which was a point of emphasis for the Griffs.

Niagara had been 5 for 7 on the power play in first two games combined, converting on two of three opportunities in the first game and 3 of 4 in the second.

The Purple Eagles scored on 22.5 percent (31 of 138) of its power play opportunities during the regular season, ranking 15th among 60 NCAA Division I teams. Canisius' penalty kill (74.7 percent; 115 of 154) ranked 56th.

Niagara came up empty in its lone power play opportunity Sunday.

Canisius had three, including an extra attacker for much of the final two minutes, after Truscott was called for elbowing 17:47 into the third.

The Griffs had a two-man advantage when Wilson skated to the bench with 1:10 to play. Canisius managed four shots. Three missed and the other was blocked by freshman Jordan Wishman, the Purple Eagles’ 20th blocked shot of the game.

“We stayed calm,” Niagara forward Justin Kendall said. “Coach says every time bullets start firing, stay calm and do our thing. I thought we did that, for sure.”

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