Saturday night, they will finally be home.
It’s been a month of bus rides and visiting locker rooms for the Canisius hockey team. While it’s looking forward to the comfort zone created in its home rink, there’s one more piece of business it has been waiting to finish: Unveiling that championship banner.
Before the Golden Griffins host Mercyhurst at 7 p.m. Saturday, they will have a pregame ceremony to raise their Atlantic Hockey championship banner at Buffalo State Ice Arena.
While the celebration of last year’s success will be exciting, the novelty will be short-lived.
“I think once you get that first shot in, the first hit in, all of a sudden it’s game on,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “That’s what we’re excited about. … Some of the stuff that goes on around the rink will quickly take a back seat once the game starts.”
Game on is what the Griffs need to jump-start their season. They enter the weekend 1-4-0 overall and 0-2-0 in Atlantic Hockey. Last year was great and all, but the focus is very much in the present.
“It was a great thing last year, but we need to put some pressure on our shoulders to win at home,” senior captain Ryan Bohrer said. “I think it will be good pressure to have.”
“It’s exciting but at the same time you’ve got to be ready to play,” said senior Kyle Gibbons, who is three points shy of 100 for his career. “You can’t get caught up in the moment. … You’ve got to enjoy it for however long the ceremony is, but once that ends, it’s game time. We’ve got to be ready to play. We can’t come out flat because they’ll put three or four on us quickly. We’ve got to be able a full 60 and play right from the start.”
Mercyhurst would love nothing more than to get a few quick goals on Canisius. After all, it was the Griffs who ended the Lakers’ season last year in a 7-2 decision in the Atlantic Hockey championship game. But revenge isn’t necessarily providing extra incentive for the Lakers.
“We’re a long way from thinking about things like championships or the playoffs and whatnot,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “But two points is two points and the more points you get now, the better off you’ll be down the stretch. There is no gamesmanship from our end. There’s no different strategy. For us to be successful at Canisius, we have to play very well.”
Before they get to the championship rematch Saturday, both teams have Atlantic Hockey games tonight.
The Griffs travel to Pittsburgh to play Robert Morris. While the Colonials are 0-5-1 overall with a tie against Niagara in their only conference game, this has traditionally been a difficult game for Canisius.
The Colonials won all three meetings last year and have won six of the last seven. The Griffs are just 2-4-0 all-time at Robert Morris.
Mercyhurst (2-5-1, 1-0-0 Atlantic Hockey) hosts RIT in Erie, Pa., tonight.
Meanwhile, Niagara returns to action after a week off, traveling to Columbus to face Ohio State for a pair of non-conference games tonight and Saturday.
The Purple Eagles are 1-4-1 overall. They dropped their last two games, at Denver and at Air Force, two weeks ago and the break in the schedule was welcomed.
“We desperately needed to have a week off,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “That’s usually not the case so early in the season, but we needed a week off to get healthy and there are a lot of parts of our game we needed to work on. We needed the extra practice.”
The Purple Eagles will return sophomore forward Dan Kolenda from injury and are hopeful to return junior defenseman Kevin Albers, who was injured early in the game against Canisius at Dwyer Arena on Oct. 12.
Niagara could use the help on defense. The Purple Eagles have been able to score their share of goals, averaging 3.5 in their last four games, but the problem comes when the offense loses control of the puck. Opponents have averaged 4.75 goals in the same period.
“When we lose the puck offensively and have to transition into defense, that needed a lot of work,” Burkholder said. “I think our defensive zone coverage is a work in progress. One mistake led to two mistakes and guys covering up for each other. There are just a lot of little details to the game that we needed the week to work on.”
Also new for the Purple Eagles this week – competition for the starting job in goal. Niagara has rotated freshmen goaltenders Jackson Teichroeb and Adrian Ignagni through the first six games. Each knew which game he would start on a given weekend. That certainty disappeared.
“Both have looked like freshmen,” Burkholder said. “We’ll be in good shape for years to come. They both have a tremendous work ethic and both have been stars of different games. It’s just the consistency has not been there from game to game.
“We said at the start of the year we’d be rotating these two guys. We told them in their goalie session on Monday that if you play well, you’ll play again. Enough is enough. We’re going to play the hot hand.”