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Kyle Gibbons recalls it as the first real awakening of his college hockey career. Two years ago, when he was a freshman at Canisius, Gibbons looked on in youthful amazement as coach Dave Smith sat Cory Conacher for a game.

Yes, this is the same Cory Conacher who is now playing for the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning and in the discussion for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

“As a freshman, I was like, 'Really, that's our best player. What's going on?” Gibbons said Monday afternoon at the Koessler Center. “I thought, 'Wow, if he's going to scratch Cory, then I'd better pick my game up'.”

Smith got the team's attention that year. Gibbons later realized that his coach was sending a message not only to Conacher, but to his team. If the younger guys see that the best player is being held to a high standard, it would be a good idea to take it to heart.

So Gibbons wasn't entirely surprised this past November when the message was sent again. The junior winger from Westlake, Ohio, just west of Cleveland, hadn't scored a point in the first seven games of the season.

The Griffs had just one win on the young season. They weren't scoring, and Smith wanted his best player to know he needed to be a more hard-working, accountable leader if the team was going to come around.

“I was a little surprised when I didn't see my name in the lineup,” Gibbons said. “But at the same time, I was kind of expecting it. I was frustrated, because I saw myself as a producer, a goal-scorer, and we weren't winning or scoring a lot of goals. It kind of boiled over.”

Gibbons knew his anger should be directed one way: Toward himself. There are times when athletes want to believe they're working their hardest, when their actions don't follow. This was one of them. Gibbons directed his energy toward the ice, toward practice, and he hasn't looked back.

“That weekend was a wake-up call for me,” Gibbons said. “I thought I was one of the top guys on our team. Not seeing my name in the lineup told me if you're not putting the work in, you're not going to play.

“I think that message has resonated with everybody on our team,” he said. “Look at how far we've come since then.”

Yeah, look at them. The Griffs had their rough moments. They lost their last five games in February. But once March arrived, all the hard work paid off. They went on an eight-game winning streak that culminated with Saturday's win in the Atlantic Hockey title game and a berth in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

Canisius will make its first-ever appearance in the tourney at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday in Providence, R.I., against Quinnipiac, the No. 1 overall seed.

The Griffs are the hottest team in the country, and Gibbons, who turns 22 next month, is one of the hottest players.

The benching did him some good. He leads the Griffs with 20 goals and 42 points, which ties him for 14th in the country in scoring. Since Jan. 1, he's the second-leading scorer in the nation.

Gibbons, who relishes the big moments, saved his best for the Atlantic Hockey tourney. He started by scoring the winner with nine seconds left in a win over Air Force. He finished with two goals and two assists in a 7-2 win over Mercyhurst in the final. He was named tourney MVP.

“He's a highly skilled player,” Smith said. “When he works, he's really good. He's maturing. It's been very gratifying for me, watching this kid grow up.”

It wasn't always easy. Gibbons, a finance major, admits he struggled to adjust to the college game at first. Some of the older guys rode him pretty hard. Balancing hockey and school (he was a conference all-academic pick last season) was difficult at times.

As a freshman, he tried out for the lacrosse team. Gibbons had been a good high school player in Ohio. But after about 10 days, he realized it was impossible to balance the two sports. He's a hockey player, which is enough.

Gibbons played one season for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, the country's top junior team, after high school. He dreams of playing professionally some day, whatever the level. Conacher showed him that anything is possible.

For now, all that matters is the NCAAs. Gibbons calls the whole experience “pretty surreal.” But he knows his history. He talked about the debt his team owes to Dr. David Dietz, the father of Canisius hockey. He mentioned Brian Cavanaugh, the long-time coach who led the program to prominence.

Gibbons gave effusive praise to his coaches, to his teammates, to his linemates, Patrick Sullivan and Cody Freeman, to the alumni who support the team. The guy is a skating testimonial to Canisius hockey. Not bad when it's coming from your best player and top scorer.

“Individual accomplishments aren't that special unless the team does well,” Gibbons said. “To have the numbers that I have, and to win and be able to share it with a great group of guys, it's very special to me.”

“We owe a lot to guys in recent history, like Cory and Vince Scarsella and Pete MacDougall, who laid the groundwork,” he said. “They've kind of showed us what to do, and we've raised the bar a little further.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com