PROVIDENCE, R.I. – They weathered the first period jitters. They played solidly in the second. And with 12 minutes to play, the Canisius Golden Griffins had a two-goal lead on the No. 1 team in the nation.
But Quinnipiac is the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason. The Bobcats’ top line upped its game, scoring three goals in a span of 6:26 capped by Kevin Bui’s game-winner with 5:32 left, to earn a 4-3 win over Canisius in the East Regional first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night.
The game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center ended the dramatic, exciting and validating run for the Griffins. They entered the game on an eight-game winning streak, earning the Atlantic Hockey tournament title and their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
And the way they lost the game, by seeing a two-goal, third-period lead evaporate in a 6½-minute span, stings.
“They scored more goals than us, so they earned it,” senior forward Preston Shupe said. “But I think the reason it hurts so much is that we think we’re just as good as them and we think we should have won the game. It’s tough. We had a special thing going. It makes it a tougher pill to swallow because we obviously are right there with the No. 1 team in the nation.”
Quinnipiac carried the play in the first period. It held a 13-7 advantage in shots and made sure the majority of play was spent in front of Canisius junior goaltender Tony Capobianco.
The barrage of shots and play in the Canisius end finally led to the first goal of the game at 8:43 when junior forward Connor Jones fired a shot off a pass from his twin brother, Kellen Jones, from the top of the left faceoff circle past Capobianco.
“It felt like they came pretty hard in the first period,” Capobianco said. “Off the rush they were looking dangerous and they were cycling the puck pretty well in our zone. I think we were a bit on our heels in the first and I was on my heels, but as the period went on and I had a couple more shots, I felt more comfortable.”
But for all their dominance in the opening period, the Bobcats led by only one goal. And the Griffs came out with fresh legs and more confidence in the second period.
Stephen Farrell scored 4:24 into the period, taking a pass from Shupe, who was behind the net, and firing it at Eric Hartzell. The puck squirted through Hartzell’s legs for Farrell’s second goal of the year. Ralph Cuddemi picked up the second assist.
Just 44 seconds later, the Griffs took a 2-1 lead, again beating Hartzell through the five-hole when Patrick Sullivan tipped a shot from Duncan McKellar while Ben Parker picked up an assist.
With some punch and their nerves worked out, the Griffs’ defense started to be more consistent, getting into lanes and getting sticks on pucks to slow the Quinnipiac offense.
Then came the play of Capobianco. He stole the final five minutes of the period for the Griffs, making several brilliant saves, including one with 12 seconds left in the second.
Quinnipiac drew a power play just 2:33 into the third period when Logan Roe was called for interference. Capobianco again made some key saves. With about 10 seconds left in the penalty, Canisius earned a faceoff in the Quinnipiac zone. Moments after the penalty expired, Kyle Gibbons worked in front of Hartzell, got his own rebound and put it away for a 3-1 Canisius lead.
“It’s a hard thing to do as a goaltender to try and block that out, the two-goal lead ... I just knew I had to keep playing my game,” Capobianco said. “I knew they were going to come, just like they did in the first period.”
The Bobcats’ rally began with 11:58 left to play when Matthew Peca’s shot went over the shoulder of Capobianco. With new life they swarmed the Canisius zone and Parker was called for cross-checking with 10:30 left, giving Quinnipiac its second power play of the game. A shot hit the crossbar midway through the power play but Jordan Samuels-Thomas snapped the puck past Capobianco with 9:18 left in the game to tie it, 3-3.
Then Bui put in a beautiful goal off a rebound on a break in on Capobianco to complete the Bobcats’ comeback.
“I don’t feel like we let it slip,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “I feel like Quinnipiac earned that victory. Quinnipiac played well. ... I thought they upped their game. You know what, people say the two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey. I’ll take a two-goal lead and try to play with it, but they get a power-play goal. They get a real nice goal from Peca. All of a sudden it’s a ballgame and just a tough puck for Tony on the fourth one. It was just a slow burn.”
The Griffs finish at 19-19-5.
Quinnipiac (28-7-5) will play Union (22-12-5), which beat defending national champion Boston College (22-12-4) in the late game, 5-1. That East Regional final will be at 6:30 tonight on ESPNU.
The winners of the four regional finals advance to the Frozen Four with the national semifinals on Thursday, April 11 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The national championship game is on April 13.