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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Canisius coach Dave Smith wasn't in the best mood after watching his team build a two-goal lead before losing to the top-ranked team in the country, but at least he maintained his sense of humor. He hunched toward the microphone, smiled and jokingly filed a minor complaint.

“The 10-minute cooling off period isn't enough,” Smith said. “I don't know who makes that suggestion to the NCAA. I don't know if a 10-day cooling off period would be enough.”

Smith will need a few days to make sense of the season after pushing Quinnipiac, the No. 1 team in the nation, to the brink of an upset before it all fell apart in the final 12 minutes Saturday in the NCAA tournament. Canisius had a 3-1 lead early in the third period before losing, 4-3, in the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

Allow me to make this clear: It wasn't a Buffalo thing, where one of the local teams chokes or loses by some fluke goal or bad call. Canisius gave it everything it had but couldn't keep up with a faster, better team in the end. Quinnipiac had more talent and depth, and it systematically took over in the third period.

There was no shame in Canisius losing the game and no shame in how the Griffs lost the game. They lost after executing a game plan to near perfection, riding goaltender Tony Capobianco for as long as they could, allowing themselves to believe they could beat the best and delivering a blow that would have buried most teams.

Canisius did all that and lost. And that was a shame given how far the Griffs had come in so little time.

Kyle Gibbons scored the biggest goal in Canisius history early in the third period with a great individual effort. He pounced on his own rebound and buried a shot into the open side as he was falling on his belly. It gave the Griffs a two-goal lead and threw a good scare into the Bobcats, given how well Capobianco played.

It could only go one of two ways. Quinnipiac would either buckle to the pressure or show why it was the top-ranked team in the country. Smith pleaded with his players to adhere to the same aggressive style that carried them to eight straight wins. They were the hottest team in the nation because they played like they had nothing to lose.

He urged them to keep swinging.

“I'm a boxing fan,” Smith said. “We talked about it. In a heavyweight fight, you have to throw punches. You can't rope a dope and hide in the corner because you won't win.

“I thought our guys did that. I thought we were throwing our punches. I thought our guys battled hard and showed growth in the game.”

Ten days from now, Canisius growth over the final three weeks of the season will matter more than how they handled a 6-minute stretch that led to their doom Saturday. Quinnipiac was getting flustered with Capobianco, who was brilliant again, before Matthew Peca broke through with a great shot in tight quarters.

Qunnipiac cranked up its speed, played with more urgency and continued getting pucks to the net when Russell Goodman tipped a shot past Capobianco to tie the game.

Less than four minutes later, Kevin Bui banged home a rebound for the winner with about 5 minutes left in regulation.

It was a matter of time. The result was hardly a surprise, but it was still shocking after Canisius came so close before losing. The same thing happened to Niagara on Friday night in Grand Rapids, Mich., when it took a 1-0 lead over North Dakota into the third period before losing in the first round.

Casual college hockey fans could say Niagara and Canisius suffering first-round knockouts suggested they were miles from challenging the top teams in the country.

Actually, it's quite the opposite. The tournament revealed just how much ground the two schools have gained on the elite. The next step is beating them.

Niagara was nationally ranked for 4 months but was mostly ignored in our lovable little hockey hotbed. It would have changed drastically if it survived against North Dakota and beaten a Yale team that knocked off Minnesota.

Yale was seeded fourth but ended up reaching the Frozen Four next week. The two Western New York teams lost, and yet they still made progress.

Canisius' reward for winning the Atlantic Hockey conference tournament was playing the top-ranked team in the country. It was the best thing that could have happened to the program. It gave them an opportunity against the best and provided more exposure to the school and its program.

Smith didn't need 10 days to add up everything. He didn't need 10 minutes, either. It was evident 10 seconds after seeing his team play until the last second, until defenseman Duncan McKellar fired a shot toward Eric Hartzell at the final horn.

“It's a leap forward, not a step forward,” Smith said. “We want to be on the other side. We want the 20 minutes until the press conference like the winning team gets. We saw it. We tasted it with 15 minutes left.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com