Niagara needs to maintain momentum and build on its national ranking.
Canisius needs points every game as it fights for a first-round playoff bye.
As if the Canisius-Niagara rivalry needed any fuel to the fire, the stakes are fairly high as the two face off in a home-and-home Atlantic Hockey series.
The teams open tonight at 7 p.m. at the Buffalo State Ice Arena, then move to Lewiston on Saturday for a 7 p.m. start at Dwyer Arena.
Niagara won the first meeting of the season, 2-1, at Buffalo State. Close games aren’t unusual. Neither is the visitor coming out ahead. In fact, since Niagara joined Atlantic Hockey the home team in the rivalry is just 1-6-1. The lone home win was by the Purple Eagles last season.
“No matter what the sport, whenever we play Canisius something amazing can happen,” Niagara goaltender Carsen Chubak said. “Nobody expects anything easy.”
The Purple Eagles enter the game in command of first place in Atlantic Hockey at 16-1-2. Their 17-4-5 overall mark has helped them gain national recognition. Niagara is at No. 15 in the USCHO.com poll, marking 11 straight weeks in that national ranking. The team also cracked the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Top 15 for the first time this season, coming in at No. 14. It’s the first time since the 2006-07 season Niagara has been in the USA Today national poll.
The backbone of that success has been Chubak’s performance. He has a 1.81 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. His ability to come up with a timely, acrobatic save often gives his teammates a burst of momentum. And a jolt of energy is something the Purple Eagles often need at this point in the season. Injuries have taken a toll on Niagara with as many as five starters out of the lineup and practice.
But that adversity hasn’t fazed the Purple Eagles, who see opportunity and have bought in to collective goals.
“Even the guys who are hurt are always around the rink on a daily basis,” Chubak said. “On game day, there are some different faces in the room, but everybody is rooting for each other. To win a championship, you have to have guys helping each other out. Nobody cares who gets the credit. At the end of the day, we want the win.”
While Niagara works toward its first Atlantic Hockey regular season title, Canisius finds itself in a fight for a first-round bye. The top four teams advance to the quarterfinal round and get to host the best-of-three series. Right now, the Golden Griffins are in fifth place (9-8-2), two points out of third and five points behind second-place Mercyhurst.
While goalie Tony Capobianco has been solid for the Griffs, the offense has just started to come around. Canisius can thank Kyle Gibbons for the emergence of more consistent goal scoring.
The junior went pointless in his first eight games. In his last 19 games, he has 22 points and his 14 goals rank tops in Atlantic Hockey.
Gibbons said the difference came in November, when he was a healthy scratch for the one of the games against Clarkson.
“That was a wake-up call,” Gibbons said. “I realized you can’t rely on your skill and I just got back to working hard.”
It’s not just that the hard work has paid off for Gibbons. It’s that the hard work is what most often produces goals.
“We need to get the puck and bodies at the net,” Gibbons said. “When you look at the majority of goals scored, whether it’s in college or the pros, they’re not pretty goals. More often than not, they’re deflections or they go off somebody. Our goal is to outshoot the other team and get bodies in front of the net to try and screen their goaltender.”