This was new territory for the Canisius hockey team. The Golden Griffins had always been the underdogs resorting to late-game heroics. But this season, the Griffs were the ones firing pucks in the net early, building two- and three-goal leads.
Only problem was, the goals came without the entire package of intensity and consistency. Consequently, the Griffs lost their leads and their first two games, to Niagara and Air Force.
Righting the ship came quickly and in a pronounced way Saturday night as the Griffs outplayed Denver for a 4-1 win in Colorado. The Pioneers were ranked No. 17 at the time. Monday morning, they had fallen out of the top 20.
“It’s a misleading stat because, yeah, we’re up, 2-0, on the board but weren’t happy with the way we were playing,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said of his team’s first two games. “Against Denver, when it was 0-0 we loved the way we were playing and in the end, that came out particularly with the way we played with the lead.”
Goal scoring hasn’t been a problem for Canisius (1-2-0). The Griffs have 10 goals in three games, six of them on special teams. The problem had been maintaining focus and aggressive play after grabbing that lead.
“Once you get the lead, the game’s not over,” senior defenseman Ben Danford said. “I think the role has kind of reversed. The last couple of years we’ve always been playing from behind and been a defensive team. Then this year we came out of the gate just scoring goals right off the bat. It’s been a different atmosphere.”
The difference was evident against Denver, when the Griffs took a 3-0 lead and held off a fast and skilled Denver team to secure the win.
“Going into the game you think you’re playing No. 17 Denver, let’s just play hard,” Danford said. “But once we got the lead I think we thought enough is enough. We’re not going to lose another two-goal lead and give up this one too.”
The message in the locker room was simple and clear.
“Coach did a fantastic job relaying the message that what we did against Air Force and Niagara and we played with the lead wasn’t good enough,” senior forward Kyle Gibbons said. “I think a lot of guys realized what we needed to do. Because, all right, I think what we did to get the lead was great. But then once we got the lead, we sat back. Against Denver, we kept playing the same way.”
Gibbons has recorded a point in 13 straight games for the Griffs, dating back to last season. It’s the longest streak by a Griff since Chris Duggan has a 15-game point streak in 2002.
Danford, meanwhile, has five assists in three games (that’s an assist on half of the Griffs’ goals), ranking first nationally for points among defenders with 1.67 per game.
The win over Denver was the first for Canisius against a ranked non-conference opponent. The Griffs look to roll some momentum from this weekend when they travel to Oxford, Ohio to play No. 6 Miami (3-2-1) on Friday and Saturday.
“I think the Denver win opened a lot of eyes for guys on our team as to if we play like this every night, look what can happen,” Gibbons said. “I think a lot of guys learned now what it’s going to take.”