ROCHESTER — With each win, they kept gaining confidence. And with each step of confidence, they kept winning.
The Canisius hockey team continued its improbable run Saturday night. The seventh-seeded Golden Griffins left Rochester with the Atlantic Hockey championship trophy and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
They earned that with a 7-2 win over Mercyhurst in front of 887 at Blue Cross Arena.
The Griffs (19-18-5) will find out their NCAA fate at 9 p.m. today during the selection show on ESPNU. It’s been quite a turnaround for Canisius, which looked like a team limping to the end of the season in February when it lost five straight.
But even on the losing streak, few things changed for the Griffs. There were tweaks with lines and combinations. There were small adjustments made to practices. But the work and the focus remained consistent. Finally in the last regular-season series against RIT, it started to show.
The Griffs have rolled from there, having won eight straight games and earning their first NCAA hockey bid ever.
“Nothing has really changed for us,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “The pieces of the puzzle shifted a little bit, but I think it was the body of work. I guess if I had to identify one thing that took us to a different level it was looking the end of the season in the face and saying … we don’t want our season to end. Since that point, we’ve played our best hockey of the season.”
While Canisius gets the automatic bid, rival Niagara will receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA field of 16. The Purple Eagles’ PairWise ranking Saturday night was high enough to qualify them for the tournament. It’s the first time Atlantic Hockey has placed two teams in the field.
Canisius defeated Niagara, 5-3, Friday afternoon in a semifinal game at Blue Cross Arena.
Junior forward Kyle Gibbons again was the catalyst for the Griffs on Saturday. Earning Most Valuable Player honors, he scored two goals, the first two of the game, in fact, which gave the Griffs a 2-0 lead. He also assisted on two others.
Gibbons scored his first with just 52 seconds left in the first period then tallied 4:36 into the second on the power play.
Then came the game-changing play. With 9:48 left in the second, a Mercyhurst player shot the puck from the red line. It bounced and got past Canisius goaltender Tony Capobianco. But the officials used video to review the play, and it clearly showed that one of the Lakers’ players was offside. The goal was disallowed.
About two minutes after that Ralph Cuddemi scored to extend the Griffs’ lead to 3-0.
“I thought the disallowed goal was momentum for us,” Smith said. “The TV timeouts really helped us settle down with the lead and the guys just showed a great passion and maturity. On the bench it felt like it was a little on again, off again but it was more on again.”
Mercyhurst got on the board a minute later when Matthew Zay scored to make it 3-1. But Cuddemi tallied on the power play with 57 seconds left in the second to bring the Griffs back to a two-goal lead. It was the fourth time this weekend that the Griffs scored in the final minute of a period.
But the Griffs took a penalty right after that goal and Mercyhurst tallied on the power play 58 seconds into the third. With the Lakers being aggressive, Canisius was able to catch them pinching at the blue line.
That’s when Gibbons and Cody Freeman created a two-on-one break and Freeman scored for a 5-2 lead.
The goals flowed easily for the Griffs after that as Torrey Lindsay and Ben Parker added tallies.
Gibbons’ four points were a career high and equaled the title game record.
“The individual accomplishments are special but you can’t achieve them without a team,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Well, he didn’t know what else to say about himself. But he had plenty to say about his teammates and the way Canisius made its magical surge to the title.
“You could tell that we had all right pieces, it was just a matter of time for us,” Gibbons said. “ We had to come together as team and as a group and we’ve done that lately. Obviously it’s given us good results.
“It just seems like our guys are in the right places,” said Capobianco, who made 34 saves. “It’s great from my perspective that I’m getting goal support. At the beginning of the year it was little frustrating with low-scoring games. We couldn’t find the back of the net.
“The big thing that coach says is that it’s part of the process. Over the course of the year guys were slowly finding their touch. In practice guys are working on their skills and it’s just great for them to be rewarded.”
The Griffs’ scoring has been the story of their eight-game winning streak. Before the streak they averaged 2.18 goals. They’ve averaged 4.12 in their last seven.
Saturday their power play went 3 for 6. Mercyhurst was 1 for 5 with the man advantage.