The best rivalries aren’t just the ones that incite passion, trash-talking and bragging rights. They’re not all about the numbers, streaks and all-time records. No, the best rivalries are the ones in which the competition elevates the level of play for both teams.
Welcome to the Canisius-Niagara rivalry on ice — playoff edition.
The Western New York rivals will face off today (4 p.m., Time Warner SportsChannel) in Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena in the first semifinal of the Atlantic Hockey Tournament. The second semifinal between Connecticut and Mercyhurst follows. The winners advance to Sunday’s championship game, where the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament will be awarded.
While the Canisius-Niagara rivalry has always been heated, especially in the hockey world, it went up a notch two seasons ago when Niagara became a member of Atlantic Hockey. The teams meet three times in the regular season and this year, while the Purple Eagles won the series 2-1, the games were evenly matched, low scoring, physical and fast.
Expect more of the same tonight.
“From my perspective, I’m looking forward to it because it brings out the best in our guys,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “Our guys have been on full-focus, high-alert. We’ve have awesome practices and they still had fun. ... I expect an intense, physical, high-paced affair.”
“I think it’s going to be a real defensive battle on both sides,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “I think we’re built the same way. Our M.O. is to try and outwork our opponent. They do the exact same. Both of us have good goaltending. This is the time of year where that wins games over some fancy offensive play.”
Niagara (23-8-5) enters the game as the regular season champ and No. 1 seed. Ranked 14th in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll, 15th in the USCHO.com poll and 11th in the PairWise, the Purple Eagles have been angling to make a case for an at-large bid and their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2008.
But they clinched that regular season title with two weeks to go and then sputtered a bit into the postseason. They shook off the cobwebs with two dramatic home-ice wins over RIT, one in overtime, to advance to the semifinals.
While Niagara has depth offensively, its ability to block shots and a strong, experienced defensive unit in front of junior goaltender Carsen Chubak has made all the difference.
“It takes a lot of courage and grit to block shots,” Burkholder said. “It’s not an easy job. It’s a thankless job. You know you’re not going to get your name in the paper for it, but we called our guys out. We didn’t think a month or so ago that we were sacrificing enough as a team. To win a championship you have to do that.”
In two games against RIT, the Purple Eagles blocked 52 shots, much of which helped neutralize a potent RIT power play that came into the series ranked second nationally.
“The defense blocked a ton of shots and our penalty kill has just done an excellent job against a very good power play,” Chubak said. “If we can keep that up, I think we’ll be very successful. It’s a team effort for sure.”
Playoff time means an emphasis on defense and while Chubak and an experienced defense anchor Niagara, Canisius has been steadied by junior goaltender Tony Capobianco all season. The Griffs have the second best penalty killing unit in the country (90.6 percent, 135 of 149) and that starts with Capobianco.
But Canisius (17-18-5) is on a six-game winning streak, the longest current streak in college hockey. And the difference in that span has been the offense.
The Griffs averaged just 2.18 goals a game in the first 34 games this season, but 4.0 in this winning streak.
“Our guys are extremely confident with the puck right now,” Smith said. “All of the things that we’ve been doing all year are still there, but we’ve buried our chances. There’s a confidence there and I think a lot of it comes from a consistency in our energy and our emotions. We haven’t gotten too high. We haven’t gotten too low. We just keep playing.”
Eighteen players have points for the Griffs in that span, led by Cody Freeman (6 goals, 1 assist) and Kyle Gibbons (3 goals, 8 assists).
“We’re just playing a good team game,” Gibbons said. “Everyone is making the simple plays. No one is trying to make anything out of nothing.
“Guys have been making good, solid plays that have been leading to a few more chances, a few more good pucks. We’re not getting guys trying to make a crafty play at the blue line, turn it over and then, boom, it’s in the back of our net. We’re creating chances off our own hard work and that’s what I think is the biggest difference.”
Canisius-Niagara: The Hockey Rivalary
All-time series: Niagara, 18-9-2
Division I era: Niagara, 14-8-2
Postseason: Tied 1-1-0
Neutral Site Games: Niagara, 3-2-0
Previous postseason meetings:
March 6, 1998, Niagara won, 4-1, in an ECAC West playoff game.
March 5, 2011, Canisius won, 6-3, in the first-round of the Atlantic Hockey Playoffs.
Atlantic Hockey Tournament
Blue Cross Arena
Tickets: $18 adults, $12 students
TV: Time Warner SportsChannel
Friday, 4 p.m.: Canisius vs. Niagara
7:30 p.m.: Mercyhurst vs. Connecticut
Saturday, 7:05 p.m.