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The goals have been consistent every year for Canisius hockey.

They want to finish in the top four with a first-round playoff bye. They want to advance to the Atlantic Hockey Frozen Four in Rochester and they want to win the conference title.

But coach Dave Smith admits they made a critical error last season.

They failed to place “win an NCAA Tournament game” on their list of goals.

That’s there now.

The Golden Griffins begin defense of their Atlantic Hockey championship tonight against arch nemesis Niagara at Dwyer Arena (7 p.m., Radio 1340).

Nothing like getting the season started with a statement game.

“I like it because it brings a focus and clarity,” Smith said. “You always want it but when you play Niagara it demands it. I’m anticipating the same type of game that we always have with them, but maybe with a few more early-season mistakes as guys get back into it.”

No. 20 Niagara, which opened its season with a pair of home losses to Clarkson, won the regular season Atlantic Hockey title last year as both Canisius and the Purple Eagles advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Both teams lost their first-round games.

Niagara was the preseason favorite to win the league again. Canisius was picked fourth, while picking up some first-place votes, too.

In the battle of defending champ versus defending champ, it’s very much anyone’s game.

And as if the rivalry needed any further incentive, consider that Canisius ended Niagara’s playoff run last year in a 5-3 win in the conference semifinals. The Griffs also took Niagara out of the playoffs in 2011 in a 6-3 win at Dwyer in the first round.

“They lost some good guys. We lost some good guys. They’ve got some good freshmen. We’ve got some good freshmen,” Canisius senior forward Kyle Gibbons said. “There’s no real clear favorite. It’s going to be a hard game.

“In the amount of time that I’ve been here, we’ve ended their season twice. Not to throw fuel on the fire, but I think they know that for sure so they’re going to be coming. We’ve got to be ready to play. They have a good team. We have to match their intensity right from the start.”

The intensity started earlier in the week for the Griffs, who return the bulk of their team from last season’s run to the NCAA tourney. The experience and maturity gained from last season has carried over into preseason practices, where chemistry has developed quicker and the focus has been sharper.

“The first month of practice you can tell guys are a little bit more confident, a little bit more accountable,” senior goaltender Tony Capobianco said. “Guys are getting on top of each other. ... just little things that maybe weren’t there before. We know what it takes to win now that we’ve been through it.

“Last year we started off slow. We struggled to win at the beginning of the year ... now, we’ve already been through it once. The same guys are back. We’re an older team. It’s going to carry us well this year.”

Niagara, meanwhile, is looking to freshmen and newcomers to pick up where the Purple Eagles left off.

Freshman goalies Jackson Teichroeb and Adrian Ignagni made their debuts against Clarkson.

Ignagni made 27 saves in a 2-0 loss to Clarkson on Sunday while Teichroeb made 39 saves in a 2-1 loss on Saturday.

“Talk about a pressure situation for both kids to come into,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “There was a lot of preseason hype for our program and you have two freshman goaltenders who haven’t played a minute of college hockey. To perform the way they did under that pressure shows a lot of fortitude and character in both kids.”

Niagara is missing its leading scorer from last season, senior Ryan Murphy.

Murphy was suspended until Jan. 13 for violating the school’s student conduct code and athlete conduct code. He pleaded not guilty to charges of DWI (first offense), imprudent speed and failure to keep right in Lewiston Town Court. The charges stem from an accident on Sept. 29.

While the Purple Eagles are physical up front and have an impressive rush, they failed to finish in their opening weekend series with Clarkson.

Junior Mike Conderman scored the lone goal for the Purple Eagles. The forward from Rochester sat out last season per NCAA rules after transferring from UMass-Lowell.

“To play as well as he did last weekend with a year off, I think bodes well for the future,” Burkholder said. “He was all over the ice and played in all situations. He’s a fierce competitor.”

email: amoritz@buffnews.com