REPORT: Conacher signs NHL contract

Reports out of Florida say former Canisius standout Cory Conacher has signed a two-year deal with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.

The deal may be finalized as soon as Thursday, March 1, the first day he can sign without having this season count against his entry-level status.

“Well folks, he did it. Didn’t take long,” Canisius hockey captain Scott Moser tweeted from the Canisius Hockey account. “Nobody deserves it more!”

Conacher is currently fourth in scoring in the AHL with 63 points (29 goals, 34 assists) through 56 games played. He was named a starter for the East in the AHL All-Star Game last month, where he scored two goals and added an assist.

Conacher graduated from Canisius last spring and left the school with 12 hockey records, including career marks for goals, points and game-winning goals.

The report from True Hockey also gives details on Conacher’s contract:

Because of his age, the 22 year old will sign a two-year, entry level deal that pays him $832,500 in 2012 and $725,00 in 2013. He’ll get the maximum $70,000 AHL salary with the max $92,500 in signing bonus.

Conacher’s contract is reported to be a two-way deal, which means he is eligible to play in the minors and the NHL. His previous contract only allowed him to play in the AHL.

Tampa Bay made two moves at the deadline, acquiring a depth forward and defenseman along with two draft picks. Tampa is also dealing with several injuries, including one to top center Vincent Lecavalier, who is out until at least mid-March with a broken hand.

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Women’s basketball vs. Marist over before it started

Terry Zeh needed an alibi Friday night, but it turned he had a good one.

It’s a good thing Terry Zeh has a crazy story to tell.

The Canisius women’s basketball coach needs an explanation – and maybe some comic relief – after the 81-52 beat down his team took from the Marist Red Foxes Friday night at the Koessler Athletic Center.

Marist opened the game with a 17-0 run and put it on cruise control the rest of the way, going up as many as 38 points in the second half before improving to 14-1 in the MAAC, one win away from clinching the top seed in the conference tournament.

It’s not uncommon for a women’s basketball coach to search for answers after a game with Marist. The Red Foxes are working on their seventh MAAC Championship in a row, and embarrassing an opponent along the way is nothing new.

But of all the reasons coaches have used for why their team lost, the one Zeh gave may be one of the more legitimate explanations.

After Canisius’ overtime win at Rider last weekend, Courtney VandeBovenkamp and Amani Mostiller contracted the norovirus that is sweeping through Princeton and Rider universities. The two had to stay at the hotel while the rest of the team went to play Saint Peter’s in the second game of the trip.

Most of the other players on the team contracted the virus on the ride home, Zeh said. Even the bus driver got sick and lost his lunch at the wheel. The team eventually had to rent a second bus – one for healthy people and one for sick people.

“It was horrific,” Zeh said. “The comment they said to me was ‘Coach, we would have rather been dead.’ It’s that violent.”

The virus, reported as being highly contagious and causing diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramps, kept many players from eating or drinking fluids most of the week. The only team activity they had during prior to the game was a very brief meeting on Thursday.

“I don’t know if you’d even call it practice, really,” Zeh said. “[More of] a walk through.”

Zeh pointed to the crazy week as the reason his team came out so flat, missing its first nine shots and committing five turnovers before Courtney VandeBovenkamp hit a layup to get the Griffs on the board, 7:35 into the game.

“It was very clear from the beginning that our bout with the norovirus last weekend [affected us],” Zeh said. “You could see it when the game started. I could see it. We could not get up and down the floor.”

Jen Morabito hit the Griffs’ second field goal with 8:37 to go in the first half before the Red Foxes pushed their lead to as many as 24 prior to the break. It only got worse in the second half, where Canisius would never get closer than 16 points and got down more than twice that many.

Although the Griffs entered the game leading the conference in three-point percentage and three-point percentage defense, they made only 7 of 22 from behind the arc (31.8 percent) while giving up 14 of 29 treys (48.3).

Marist’s Kelsey Beynnon hit 4 of 5 three-pointers and 10 of 12 field goals for a career-high 26 points in only 27 minutes of action.

“I felt pretty normal,” Beynnon said. “I guess I was just hitting shots today. I got lucky.”

The loss drops the Griffs to 6-9 in the conference and puts them in seventh place, an unfavorable position to be in because seeds 7-10 go to the play-in round at the conference tournament. The Red Foxes have now beaten Canisius eight in straight meetings.

“If we’re 100 percent healthy, do we beat Marist? I don’t know,” Zeh said, “but I think if we were healthier we certainly might have been able to compete a little bit better.”

Niagara shows Canisius who’s boss

I spent my week watching Canisius and Niagara square off, as the Western New York rivals met each of the last three nights. There was hockey on Tuesday, men’s basketball on Wednesday and another hockey game Thursday.

Neither Canisius team is doing great, but beating Niagara is a way to make something out of a less-than-stellar season. It’s amazing how quickly the story of the year can change from “Canisius wasn’t very good” to “Hey, they beat Niagara.”

Men’s basketball and hockey needed wins this week in the worst way. The basketball team, near the bottom of country in most statistical categories, needs to beat somebody – anybody – to get some momentum going into the conference tournament. For the hockey team, it’s all about trying to stay in the upper tier of the Atlantic Hockey standings, which Canisius has been slipping out of in recent weeks.

But three nights in a row, players in purple were the ones celebrating victories, giving Niagara a decisive advantage in conference standings and the Battle of the Bridge, which is the year-long, all-sport competition between the schools.

“Opportunistic” would hardly be a word to describe either Canisius team. The hockey team’s power play success rate of 9.2 percent is making an irony of the term “man advantage” and the basketball team hasn’t had a season that bad since 1976-77 – but even that 3-22 squad found a way to beat Niagara come February.

After being swept this week, hockey and basketball have combined to lose more than 40 games this winter. Maybe expecting more was too much to ask.

Niagara had the better teams, the better players and the better fans. Purple Eagle Giancarlo Iuorio was the best player on the ice for either team this week, not to mention the one with the best hockey name, with all due respect to Mitch McCrank. Antoine Mason and Juan’ya Green were the best players in the Gallagher Center Wednesday night, elevating their games while Harold Washington and Gaby Belardo went missing.

Not only were the losses humbling for Canisius on the scoreboard, but Niagara also won in stands. One week after RIT’s fans came to Buffalo and silenced Canisius supporters with their organized lunacy and decibel levels, Niagara’s N-Zone returned the favor, outnumbering fans in gold at Buff State at least 10:1.

The attendance at Thursday’s hockey game at Niagara’s own, on-campus arena was 1,249, nearly double the 643 people who hiked over to Buff State Tuesday. Granted, it was Valentine’s Day, but let’s be honest: Niagara always has good support and there is no reason to believe its fans would have let a holiday interfere with something they’ve loved longer than their partner.

Niagara would have made the game a holiday-themed event and fans would have made it a Valentine’s destination. Instead, the holiday was the perfect scapegoat for a Canisius fanbase that looks for any reason not to go to a game. (Can they even be called fans? “Fan” is short for “fanatic,” which Canisius students clearly are not.)

Niagara’s athletic director Ed McLaughlin was the happiest guy in WNY this week. He was out and about at all three games, shaking hands and celebrating with his teams while tweeting out one #victoryalert after another. He was the first person to congratulate his basketball coach Joe Mihalich after the press conference Wednesday and went right down to the bench after the final horn of Thursday’s hockey game. Life is good when you’re on top.

With four points this week, Niagara took a share of first place in Atlantic Hockey and has the offense and goaltending to make a serious playoff run. Green and Mason, Niagara’s prized basketball recruits, are just freshman but are already causing Canisius fits. Mihalich has a knack for getting his teams to peak at the right time every year, and if these freshmen continue to develop, Canisius may be looking up at Niagara in the standings for quite some time to come.

Niagara now has a commanding 14.5-6.5 lead in the Battle of the Bridge. While athletes on the smaller teams sometimes feel left out on campus, they’re the ones keeping Canisius afloat in the competition.

Men’s basketball, hockey, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball went a combined 0-9-1 against the Purple Eagles this year, with hockey earning half a point for the tie. A layup from Ashley Durham in the final second of the game gave the women’s basketball team a win over Niagara earlier this month, and the Griffs’ only other points are courtesy of men’s and women’s cross country.

If men’s and women’s swimming and diving can finish ahead of Niagara at the MAAC Championships this weekend, it would pull in four huge Battle points for Canisius.

Wouldn’t it be something if the big teams chipped in and bought the swimmers a little gift to say “thanks for saving our butts”? Don’t ask Niagara – the Purple Eagles haven’t needed any help.

Niagara sneaks past Canisius in OT; Griffs drop 10th straight

LEWISTON — For as disappointing as this season has been for the Canisius Golden Griffins, they were in a position Wednesday night to make it all go away.

Junior Alshwan Hymes was the Griff who deserved to take the final shot Wednesday night at the Gallagher Center.

A win over rival Niagara on its home court wouldn’t erase Canisius’ 4-21 record, wouldn’t make the team’s injuries heal any faster and wouldn’t make the blowout losses any less embarrassing, but for one night, everything would have been okay.

Alshwan Hymes stepped to the free-throw line with 6.7 seconds left in regulation and calmly hit both shots to tie the game at 55 and send his Griffs to overtime. Down by three points with the clock running out in the overtime period, Hymes again had the ball, and the game, in his hands.

After Gaby Belardo made a nice pass to find Hymes wide open, he set his feet, jumped, and released a clean look that would have sent the game to a second overtime. This time, Hymes’ shot hit the rim and fell back toward the floor. Belardo collected the rebound and ran behind the arc for a desperation attempt, but it was off the mark and Niagara claimed a 60-57 win.

“The ball was in our hands, on our terms, on the very last possession,” Canisius coach Tom Parrotta said. “We had a couple of shots at it. Gaby missed a layup, which he knows he needs to make the next time he’s in that position, but he turned around and made a great pass to ‘Shwan — who else do you want standing there with his feet set taking a three to send it to double overtime?”

“We needed three points, wide open three-pointer, that’s a shot I got to make,” Hymes said.

Canisius’ hopes had to come down to Hymes, who was the only Griff who could have been remotely happy with his offensive performance. He kept Canisius in the game with five three-pointers and finished with 19 points, more than twice as many as any teammate. Belardo and Harold Washington combined went 3-for-23 and scored 14 points, most of which coming from the free-throw line.

Neither team managed a field goal in overtime, with Niagara going 0-for-4 and Canisius going 0-for-8. The game was decided by five Niagara free throws in the extra session, all hit by Antoine Mason, who finished with a game-high 21 points. MAAC Rookie of the Year candidate Juan’ya Green had 16 points and five assists while knocking down 4 of 9 three-point attempts.

Shooting issues weren’t limited to overtime. Only 15 of the 59 three-point attempts in the game went in, just over 25 percent (Canisius 8 for 30, Niagara 7 for 29).

“It certainly wasn’t a beautiful thing,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, we won. Winners find a way to win.”

The key point of the game in regulation came when Josiah Heath converted the old-school three-point play – a basket and a foul shot – to tie the score at 41 with 12:23 to go. Neither team could score over the next three minutes as tension grew with possession of the game in the balance.

Franklin Milian hit a free throw with 9:11 left to give Canisius its first lead of the night and Hymes scored from distance later to make it a 7-0 run that put the visitors ahead 45-41. But Niagara answered with a 10-0 run of its own to retake a lead Canisius wouldn’t match until Hymes’ free throw and the end of regulation.

Heath, a freshman, was dominant on the glass with 14 rebounds and came up with a block and a steal on consecutive critical possessions in overtime.

It’s been over a decade since Canisius last beat Niagara at the Gallagher Center, though the last two games have come down to the final play. In last year’s meeting, Niagara won on a goaltending call at the buzzer, and Wednesday night took overtime before the Purple Eagles walked off victorious. Through 167 all-time meetings between the two schools, 18 games have gone to overtime, with each side winning nine apiece.

Quick-strike Niagara beats Canisius in home-and-home opener

Chris Lochner and Ryan Murphy scored goals 18 seconds apart early in the second period Tuesday night at Buffalo State Ice Arena to put the Niagara Purple Eagles up 3-0 and sink Canisius into a hole it would never recover from.

Dan Morrison is now just 11 saves away from Canisius' all-time record of 2,771, set by Bryan Worosz in 2005. However, sophomore Tony Capobianco will likely get a start in net Thursday.

The Griffs controlled the tempo of the game early on but lost momentum with four first-period penalties and untidy play in their defensive zone. They struggled to put offensive chances together in the second and third periods, but any Griff who was able to elude defenders on the way to goal was met by a purple brick wall — Niagara’s senior goaltender Chris Noonan, who ranks second nationally in goals against average and save percentage.

“Going into the game, we talked about how it’s not an X’s and O’s type game, it’s who can play with passion and intensity,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “I thought from a Canisius perspective, they had a couple of sloppy goals … it’s tough to win against anybody with that many sloppy goals.”

Noonan stymied Mitch McCrank’s one-timer from point-blank range early in the first period and was sharp all night, finishing with 30 saves to improve to 10-5-4 on the year.

Niagara went up 4-0 later in the second period before Doug Beck’s fourth goal of the season got Canisius on the board shortly after. Senior goaltender Dan Morrison got the start in his final home game against Niagara and made 32 saves in the 4-1 loss. He is now just 11 saves shy of Canisius’ all-time record.

Morrison was beaten in the first period on a point shot from Dan Weiss that found its way through traffic and went in to the lower portion of the net. The second was a power-play goal from just outside the crease and the third came on a 2-on-1 break.

Niagara scored its fourth goal after Duncan McKellar tried to knock a puck out of the air in the neutral zone but instead sent it toward his own net. Morrison came out in desperation and tried to swipe the puck away, but it went right to Giancarlo Iuorio, who shot into an empty net.

“The difference in tonight’s game was they capitalized on our sloppy plays,” Smith said. “That’s why we keep score — credit goes to Niagara for capitalizing.”

Morrison had a similar take, noting how his team’s play has changed over the course of the season.

“We have to find our team defense again and build off that,” Morrison said. “Earlier in the year we had good team defense. We might not have had as many scoring chances, but at least we’d be in every game. Right now it’s just getting away from us.”

Canisius had five power-play opportunities on the night but couldn’t convert. The unit had trouble getting situated in the Niagara zone and, when it finally set up, couldn’t get shots through. Both of those are recurring problems this season: After going 0-for-5 with four shots on the night, the power play unit now runs at just 9.6 percent on the season and averages only 1.02 shots per power play.

In contrast, Canisius’ opponents score on 22.2 percent of power plays and record 1.63 shots per man advantage.

The teams will meet again Thursday night, this time at Niagara’s home rink.

“Man,” Morrison said, shaking his head, “we can’t lose Thursday.”