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A few months ago, Dave Smith challenged his goaltender. He wanted Tony Capobianco to go from good to great.

The junior has elevated his game and was on top of it in all phases Thursday night as he picked up the shutout for Canisius in a 2-0 win over 15th-ranked Niagara in front of 1,032 at the Buffalo State Ice Arena.

Capobianco made 35 saves and keyed a Golden Griffin penalty-killing unit which held Niagara to 0-for-7 on the power play.

Talk to the goaltender and it’s all pretty simple.

“We had a couple of big faceoff wins and when we had the chance to clear, we did,” he said. “Guys were just having good body positioning.”

A bit low-key? Exactly. The even-keeled attitude helps him shake off a bad goal or a bad game. But Smith wanted him to bring forth a more competitive spirit on the ice.

It was the third shutout of the season for Capobianco and the fourth of his career. In four games against nationally ranked teams, he has elevated his game. In those games he has a 1.51 goals against average and a .962 save percentage.

“He has grown as a player with his competitive level,” Smith said. “He’s really laid back. He’s a laid-back person. And he has raised his competitive level in practice. ... He is what you want in a No. 1 goalie — competitive, solid and he works his tail off. It’s fun to watch him.”

While Capobianco’s defensive unit did an outstanding job of giving him a clear sight on many of his saves, there were several spectacular stops. Perhaps the key save of the night came when the game was still scoreless. Niagara’s Ryan Rashid found himself alone and staring at an open net. But Capobianco sprawled to his left, threw out his glove hand and made the save.

Moments like that inspire his teammates.

“When it looks like a guy is coming out of nowhere to score, he stops it,” said junior Ryan Bohrer, who scored for the Griffs. “It gives us confidence. It’s not so much momentum. It’s more that we just want to play up to our end of the bargain because he’s playing so well.”

The special teams battle took its shape in the second period. Canisius started out with a power play then was whistled for three straight penalties, one which resulted in 1:20 of a two-man advantage. While Niagara generated shots on goal and scoring opportunities, it couldn’t find the net and failed to sustain any offensive momentum.

“We didn’t do anything well tonight and special teams were the difference in the game,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “We were very passive. We didn’t have our legs. We had no passion. It was the one of the worst games we played all year.”

Meanwhile, Canisius capitalized on its power play. Bohrer scored at 15:14 of the second when his shot beat Niagara goalie Carsen Chubak high.

Chris Rumble and Duncan McKellar picked up the assists. It marked the fifth straight game the Griffs have netted a power-play goal — their best streak since 2009.

While Canisius has built its season’s success on strong defense (its 2.25 goals allowed ranks tops in Atlantic Hockey) its offense has started to come alive. Credit the power play with that. In the last nine games, the power play is coverting on 28.6 percent of its chances, scoring 10 goals in its last 35 man-advantage opportunities.

“Our unit has been different with Chris Rumble on the point,” Bohrer said. “He’s getting the puck on the net.”

With 51 seconds left in the game, Cody Freeman beat a Niagara player to a puck deep in the Purple Eagles’ zone and tipped the puck in the empty net for the 2-0 margin.

The loss ends a three-game winning streak in the rivalry for Niagara. It also marks just the second time the home team has won since the Purple Eagles joined Atlantic Hockey for the 2010-11 season.

With the win, Canisius improves to 10-8-2 in Atlantic Hockey and its 22 points puts them in a three-way tie with Air Force and Holy Cross for third place in the conference standings.

Niagara slips to 16-2-2 in the conference standing, but the Purple Eagles’ 34 points keep them comfortably in first place ahead of second-place Mercyhurst.

The teams meet again Saturday at 7 p.m. in Dwyer Arena to conclude the regular season series. Canisius then travels for a pair of games at Air Force on Feb. 15-16 while Niagara has a home-and-home with Robert Morris that weekend.

email: amoritz@buffnews.com