Surprising Griffs need to continue winning ways

Has there ever been this much excitement around a Canisius team with only one win through its first five outings?

Even the most optimistic of Griffs hockey fans tempered their expectations heading into this season. The team has 12 freshmen and 20 underclassmen. There are only two seniors, and one of them is a goalie. Add in the fact that the program’s top two career scorers just graduated and the outlook wasn’t very bright.

Canisius coach Dave Smith prepares his team for a series with Bentley this weekend.

The first three games of the year were ugly, perhaps even worse than expected.

An exhibition against Queens University didn’t count towards the standings but stayed fresh in the minds of players and fans. After Niagara beat the Canadian club with ease the pervious day, 7-2, Canisius lost a 2-1 lead less than five minutes to go and ended up skating to a 2-2 tie.

A weekend trip to Connecticut on Oct. 15 and 16 didn’t go any better. Quinnipiac manhandled the young Griffs over the two-game set, winning both games by a combined 11-1 score. Canisius was held to an abysmal nine shots in the first game and 14 in the second.

With a Thursday night game the following week against preseason favorite RIT, things looked to go from bad to worse. The Tigers had beaten Canisius eight times in a row, each loss furthering rivalry status between the schools.

Nobody really thought Canisius had a shot against an RIT team that was getting votes in the national poll.  But lo and behold, they pulled it out. The freshman played like seniors and the seniors looked like Hobey Baker candidates. The defensive unit came together and gave Tiger players all they could handle in the corners. Scott Moser’s game-winning goal was arguably the biggest goal of his career and nearly every one of Dan Morrison’s 33 saves was highlight reel material.

Suddenly, the Griffs looked like a real hockey team – and a dangerous one, at that.

“Going into Quinnipiac was a real eye opener,” junior forward Preston Shupe said. “We have a real young team and everyone got to see what it’s going to take to play at this level and especially to succeed. They’re a strong team and the next couple weeks at practice we knew we had to do everything we could to get to the next level. And that’s what we did. We practiced hard, worked hard and we’re getting there.”

The Griffs took their newfound confidence all the way to Colorado Springs last weekend for a meeting with the defending Atlantic Hockey champions, Air Force.

That’s an awful long way to travel for just one game, but after the performances the Griffs gave in the first three games, no distance was too far for a shot at redemption, an opportunity to prove the first victory over RIT since 2008 was no fluke.

Nothing brings a team together like some last-minute heroics. Trailing 3-1 with less than two minutes to play, the Griffs pulled the goalie in favor of an extra attacker and were immediately rewarded with a Kyle Gibbons goal. The team continued to pour on the pressure, and with six seconds left, the puck found its way onto the stick of freshman Doug Beck, whose first career goal couldn’t have come at a better time.

Canisius had the better of the chances in overtime and had a goal waved off at the buzzer before skating to a 3-3 draw.

The Griffs have still only won one game on the season, but a 1-0-1 conference record has them sitting in third place in the Atlantic Hockey standings. After two emotional conference games, those… whatever they were against Quinnipiac seem like a distant memory.

Now here’s the dilemma for Canisius – Bentley comes to town this weekend.  The Falcons were one of three teams to be ranked below Canisius in the AHA preseason poll and finished 10th in the conference last year. It’s one thing to be able to hang with the big boys in the conference, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t take care of the little guys.

There’s no such thing as an easy win in Atlantic Hockey, but if the Griffs want to be contenders, this homestand is a great opportunity for four big points.

“I think it was my sophomore year, coach threw out a stat that we had a great record against the top half of our league, but then we’d slip up against the bottom half,” Moser said. “We can’t let that happen. Definitely the games against the middle-of-the-road to bottom teams… are just as important, if not even more, than the ones against the higher-ranked teams.”

Early points are especially important to widen the gap between good teams that are starting slow, like RIT, Niagara and Robert Morris, who don’t yet have a conference win between them.

Coach Smith acknowledges that his teams have never played as well as he’d like against Bentley. In a year when the success of the team will be so dependent on the play of the freshmen, it’s time they learn some new winning ways  – a Canisius team that takes care of business.

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