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Dave Smith could see the difference a few weeks ago during Canisius’ first hockey practice. His players looked prepared and moved with assertion that’s not often found until well into the regular season. It was a glaring sign of confidence for the Golden Griffins that began last season.

Canisius rattled off eight straight victories and rolled through the conference tournament en route to the NCAAs. It was a dangerous team that led top-ranked Quinnipiac in the third period before it all slipped away in the first round. But for the first time in school history, Canisius made an impression on a national level.

Smith had been waiting nine seasons for a team like he has this season. He’s had good players over the years, most notably Ottawa Senators winger Cory Conacher. But even when Canisius had talent and leadership, it never had the big-game experience that three-quarters of his roster took into this season.

The Griffs returned with a good team mostly intact, but apparently the conference coaches weren’t overly impressed. Canisius wasn’t even considered the best team in Western New York. Niagara, ranked 20th in the country in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll, was picked to win Atlantic Hockey.

And now the difference looks miniscule.

Canisius started the season with three goals in the first 11-plus minutes but allowed a pair of three-goal leads to slip away, enabling Niagara to come back for a 6-4 victory before a packed house in Dwyer Arena. The latest chapter in the Battle of the Bridge was a terrific game in terms of entertainment value, which is more than you get from the Sabres.

Let me put it this way: Niagara scored six goals over the final 41 minutes. The Sabres couldn’t score that many in its first five games.

“While excitement on offense was absolutely what we had last year, the team-tough defense was not there,” Smith said. “I’m happy with the open-ice offense, happy with the puck movement, happy with the goals, but that’s not how we’re going to win. We’re don’t want to play run-and-gun hockey.”

Niagara was trailing, 4-1, when it stormed back with five straight goals. Chris Lochner’s shorty with 25 seconds left in the second period tied the game, 4-4. Ryan Rashid rifled a wrister into the top corner with a man down to give the Purple Eagles a 5-4 lead, and Mike Conderman added the clincher into an empty net.

Man, what a game.

“It’s college hockey,” Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. “What a product. What a game. It’s the best kept secret in Western New York. There can’t be any one leaving the building tonight who doesn’t want to come back and see both teams. It was a hard fought, hard hitting game.”

Niagara has two freshmen goaltenders, which could be one reason it wasn’t as aggressive offensively in its first two games. The Eagles were forced to crank up their attack with a three-hole deficit Saturday. Niagara kept firing away while trying to come back and finished with 42 shots on goal.

Canisius knew it could compete with any team in the conference, and it proved as much Saturday. Tony Capobianco is a terrific goaltender despite getting roughed up. Smith recruited Conacher’s kid brother, Shane. He was the only freshman in the lineup Saturday and looked solid in his D-I debut.

My only problem with the Battle of the Bridge on Saturday was that it was played in Lewiston. Ideally, the two programs will continue growing, capture the attention of a hockey-loving fan base, outgrow the college arenas when they play one another and treat the region to a great product in First Niagara Center.

“There should be lines outside the building for that type of game,” Smith said. “That is a lot of skill, a lot of energy. We want more people to come and see that game.”

Smith and Burkholder have vastly different personalities, but both have bought into the idea that their programs need one another. They want the other to succeed, so long as they’re not in the same building. Nothing sells college hockey like a juicy rivalry, and it’s even better when both teams are good.

Canisius and Niagara would like to someday hold a tournament downtown that would be similar to the Beanpot in Boston. How about Canisius, Niagara, Penn State and another team from New York such as RIT, Cornell, Clarkson, Colgate or St. Lawrence? Heck, bring them all. And tell them to bring their fans.

Canisius will be moving into HarborCenter next season. The new building alone should be enough to stir the masses downtown. But it sure would be nice if the two teams drew the attention of 15,000 fans and played across the street. Imagine how much it would help recruiting for both schools.

The better both teams get, the stronger their rivalry becomes. It would lead to bigger games for higher stakes. It’s how rivalries become intense. Hopefully, there will come a time in which enough hockey fans open their eyes and appreciate the quality of Division I hockey the way they do the NHL.

Canisius and Niagara provided everything and more at a fraction of the price.

“It’s coming quickly based on what both programs did last year to end the season,” Burkholder said. “What Canisius has going downtown is exciting for college hockey. If the word spreads, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com