Niagara coach Dave Burkholder and his regional counterpart, Canisius coach Dave Smith, were on different paths with the same destination in mind Thursday night. How they arrive in the NCAA tournament matters little, a fact the Purple Eagles and Golden Griffins proved last year. The idea is getting there.
And then, well, you never know.
Burkholder has been waiting for his young roster to develop and mature into a team that can compete for a conference title. He opened the crease to freshmen goaltenders Jackson Teichroeb and Adrian Ignagni with the idea one would emerge, grab the No. 1 job for keeps and make his life much easier.
Both have been brilliant and befuddling this season, typical among first-year goaltenders. Burkholder often has been left to hypothesize over which one will play well, follow his pregame hunch and hope he’s right. The guessing game continued after a 4-4 tie with Canisius on Thursday night in Dwyer Arena.
Smith had a different problem at Canisius, which has one of the oldest rosters in Division I hockey. Thirteen upperclassmen were in the lineup Thursday for the latest Battle of the Bridge, but senior goaltender Tony Capobianco was not among them. Smith inserted junior backup Keegan Asmundson, who has been more effective, in net.
Capobianco was brilliant last season. He led the Griffs to the NCAAs and was the primary reason they nearly knocked off Quinnipiac, the top seed and eventual champion, in the opening round. But the same goalie who evolved into a standout last season has struggled to regain the same form this year.
It often comes back to goaltending.
Canisius tied the game, 4-4, when Ben Danford’s shot fluttered from just inside the blue line and beat Teichroeb with 6:42 remaining in regulation after he had stopped 36 of 39 shots. Earlier in the third period, he opened his pads for Doug Jessey that allowed Canisius back into the game after Niagara had a 4-2 lead.
Niagara scored its first three goals after Canisius had momentary lapses in the defensive zone. T.J. Sarcona gave them a 3-2 lead after he was left alone, allowing him to snap home a loose puck in the second period. Asmundson fell to his knees early in the third period, allowing Matt Williams to beat him for the fourth goal.
Overall, both goalies played well enough to keep their teams in the game and poorly enough to have the game slip away.
How the two teams move toward their long-term objective matters more than the result Thursday night. Canisius and Niagara are looking to clean up their games before the Atlantic Hockey conference tournament begins a month from today.
Atlantic Hockey is this tight this season. Air Force and Robert Morris, the two teams directly ahead of Canisius, await the Griffs later this month. Niagara has Robert Morris and conference-leading Mercyhurst coming up on its schedule. What happens in the next three weeks will largely determine seedings for the conference tourney.
Coaching is a continuous search for maximum potential, but it’s really about peaking at the right time. It’s tricky and unpredictable.
Canisius finished sixth last season with an 8-6-5 conference record that offered only a glimpse of a dangerous team late in the year. The Griffs’ chemistry came together about this time last year. They gained confidence, picked up momentum and upset Air Force to win the conference tournament.
Niagara was terrific all year, finished the regular season with a 20-5-2 record overall, was among the top 15 teams in the country and earned an at-large bid into the NCAAs. The Purple Eagles opened this season favored to win the conference, but it looked more like a reward from the previous season than an honest evaluation.
The best way for the two rivals to prepare for the most important stretch ahead is playing one another twice in 48 hours. Nothing better extracts the intensity, aggression and pace that come with playoff hockey than a feisty home-and-home series between familiar foes.
The pressure that comes with Canisius-Niagara games brings out of the best in both.
Thursday was the latest example of them needing each other.
Niagara’s at-large bid last year, a first for Atlantic Hockey, isn’t an option for either team this time around. One will need to win the conference tourney to earn a spot in the NCAAs. It’s not out of the question for either if they can get enough players to come together and ride a hot goaltender for three weekends.
So, yes, the two rivals actually have much in common other than the distance between them. They have the same goals. They’re coming from different places but will need to take similar roads toward the same destination. Their paths intersected Thursday night. The next step comes Saturday at Buffalo State College.