Canisius needed two victories last weekend to earn home ice advantage for the first round of the Atlantic Hockey playoffs.
Earn is the key word. The Golden Griffins had control of their destiny and they completed a rare season series sweep of RIT to put themselves in a favorable position this weekend.
Canisius meets Bentley in a best-of-three first-round playoff series at Buffalo State Ice Arena tonight, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) at 7 p.m.
The Griffs and Bentley met twice in the regular season at Waltham, Mass. The Falcons won both, by 3-2 in overtime and 7-2.
But those games were back in January and Canisius feels its game has changed for the better since then.
“When we played them the first time we were kind of puck watching a little bit,” said Canisius junior forward Kyle Gibbons. “We weren’t the aggressor. I think against RIT we were the aggressor and we played two pretty good games against them. That’s the biggest change – guys working harder without the puck, guys working harder with the puck. It’s just attention to detail and being aggressive. We’re not waiting for what the other team is going to do.
“We’re taking it to them, which is what we need to do.”
Those two wins against RIT ended a five-game skid for the Griffs, who enter the Atlantic Hockey Tournament 4-6-0 in their last 10 games.
That’s better than Bentley, which is 1-7-2 in its last 10 and on a three-game losing streak.
But the Griffs aren’t discounting the Falcons, who have Bret Gensler, the conference’s scoring leader with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists).
“They’ve got a lot of skill,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “They can get up and down the ice and if you’re going to be on your heels, they can capitalize on it. ... The common denominator for our good play is aggressive and physical hockey. We want to put the other team on their heels. We want them thinking about what we’re doing. We want to be hard to play against and an aggressive pace can do that.”
The Griffs’ offense runs through Gibbons. The junior struggled at the start of the season, going without a point in his first eight games. Since Nov. 10, he’s racked up 30 points with 16 goals.
“Kyle is our most skilled player,” Smith said. “He got off to such a slow start but since that point, he’s really worked hard for his game. And his game is so much more than just points, but points come as a result of his hard work and his good, solid play. He’s really important to our team’s success.”
Also important for the Griffs is their defensive unit. Their penalty kill ranks third nationally (90.3 percent). It could become a key matchup with Bentley. When the Falcons were clicking through the first 21 games, their power play was at 24.7 percent. In their last 11 games, it has tumbled to 9.8 percent.
Expect the Griffs’ defense to be anchored by goaltender Tony Capobianco, who has 985 saves and should break the single-season record of 993 set by Dan Morrison in the 2010-11 season. The junior is calm, which can help the Griffs be patient over the course of 60 minutes.
“Even though he’s laid back, he’s intense in the moment and we know he’s going to make a big save for us when we need it,” Smith said. “We know he’s going to bring a calm confidence back there that really feeds into our defensive corps.”
“It’s a long game,” Capobianco said. “We’ve just got to stay the course of the game, play our game and it should work out. I think it’s more a sense of urgency. We know if they get up one, we’ve got to score and come back. We can’t sit on our heels. Same thing if we’re winning. We’ve got to play hard defensively and clear those pucks. It’s the little things that get magnified.”
This is the first home Atlantic Hockey playoff game for the Griffs since 2007. That year there was a one-game playoff format and Canisius lost to AIC, 2-1.
Since Atlantic Hockey has gone to the best-of-three format for the first and quarterfinal rounds, the home team is 24-1. The Griffs have the lone road win, sweeping a series with Mercyhurst in 2010.
The winner of this weekend’s series advances to the quarterfinals, another best-of-three series on campus sites. Niagara, which won the regular-season title and took the No. 1 seed, has a first-round bye and will await this weekend’s results – Atlantic Hockey re-seeds after each round – to learn its opponent.
The four teams to advance out of the quarterfinal round will play in the one-game semifinal at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester on March 22, with the championship game set for March 23.