ROCHESTER — He came to the podium wearing a yellow hard hat. It’s a tradition for the Canisius hockey team, a post-game award given to the player deemed the hardest worker of the night by his teammates.
Sophomore Tyler Wiseman had never worn the hard hat. He came into Friday’s Atlantic Hockey semifinal with just nine points.
But in one of the biggest games in recent program history, Wiseman scored twice and set-up the game-winning goal as the Golden Griffins knocked out top-seeded and nationally ranked Niagara, 5-3, at Blue Cross Arena.
The Griffs will face Mercyhurst, which defeated Connecticut, 4-1, in the second semifinal, in the Atlantic Hockey Championship tonight (7, Time Warner Sports).
It was the seventh straight win for Canisius, its longest winning streak in the Division I era. The Griffs improved to 18-18-5 as their five-game losing streak in February seems like a distant memory.
“Right now I feel like I’m a passenger here and it’s a heck of a fun ride,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “The guys are having fun. The smiles are bigger. They’re taller. Everything is bigger and brighter right now.”
Niagara (23-9-5), meanwhile, goes back to Lewiston and must wait out the results from other conference tournaments and watch the computer PairWise rankings to see if they gain an at-large bid to the NCAA field of 16.
The Purple Eagles, ranked 14th in the latest national polls, took a 1-0 lead on a goal from Giancarlo Iuorio just 3:26 into the game. Niagara had a power-play opportunity a few minutes later, but Canisius, which has the second best penalty-killing unit in the country, kept it a one-goal game.
That gave the Griffs’ top line time to get its legs. Kyle Gibbons passed from behind the back of the net to Patrick Sullivan who swung it to an open Cody Freeman for a beautiful, quick play that ended up tying the game.
Ben Danford tallied with just 39 seconds left in the first to give the Griffs a 2-1 lead after one period, setting the tone for a wild back-and-forth game.
Just 4:05 into the second, Hugo Turcotte banged in his own rebound to tie the game for Niagara. Just over four minutes later, Wiseman scored his first goal, tipping in a shot from Stephen Miller.
It didn’t last long as Iuorio buried a shot in front of Canisius goalie Tony Capobianco to knot the game, 3-3, at 13:11 of the second.
But then Wiseman set up Duncan McKellar on the power play with just 20 seconds left in the period to give Canisius a 4-3 lead and momentum. Stephen Farrell hit Wiseman with a pass as they entered the Niagara zone. Wiseman redirected the puck over to McKellar, who was pinching down by the left faceoff circle and then fired the puck into a nearly empty net.
“Scoring the last two minutes of the period sets the tone for the period coming up,” Wiseman said. “I talked to Duncan prior to that faceoff. We noticed earlier in the game that that was an open pass and I told him I was going to come to him with it. And that play worked out well.”
It worked out and it set the tone for the third where Wiseman came out, went hard to the net, got a pass from Miller and scored for a 5-3 Canisius lead just 1:58 into the period.
Wiseman came into the game with just four goals and nine points. Playing on the third line, he hadn’t had a point since registering two assists in the Griffs’ 6-5 win at RIT.
“That’s the thing with our team. We have depth,” Gibbons said. “People might not see it, but we have a lot of good depth and [Wiseman] is one of those players for us. He works hard every day and to see him get rewarded is awesome. That’s just how we are as a team.
“This is how it’s evolved since halfway through the year when we were struggling. Now we’re on this great run and the biggest difference you see is guys helping other guys. I know I talked to Tyler a few times and we kept encouraging him. To see it pay off for him is awesome.”
Wiseman also got a few tips from his older brother, Chad, who plays for the Albany Devils of the AHL.
“He’s 32 now and older and wiser. He’s such an experienced player,” Wiseman said. “Every summer I get to train with him. He passes his knowledge down to me. If I’m struggling or having a bad week or a bad practice, I go for him to advice.”
While Niagara held a 44-29 advantage in shots, it went 0 for 4 on the power play.
It was the most goals allowed this season by Niagara goaltender and Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year Carsen Chubak.
“We’re really disappointed,” Chubak said. “I apologize to the school for our effort today. I didn’t think that was the way it was going to turn out.”
While Canisius prepares for its first championship game since going to the 1999 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final (the league did not have an automatic bid that year) Niagara waits to see if they become the first team from Atlantic Hockey to notch an at-large bid.
“It’s a tough time right now but when you cool down, the PairWise ... the computer system on how we pick the field, it is what it is,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “It’s a measurement of your entire season and we’ve had a heck of a season. So if the computer says you’ve had a good season, you deserve to go, we’ll regroup and hopefully the Niagara team that’s a really fast, energetic, hungry team will be there.”