By Budd Bailey
College basketball does not have a monopoly on March Madness.
College hockey, Atlantic Hockey division, can be quite crazed at this time of the year.
Consider the status of the Canisius College team, which started the season 2-8 and was 5-12-2 back in early January. That same Golden Griffins squad will be playing for the AHA championship on Saturday night. Most impressively, they’ll be doing it at home.
The Griffs have played in three conference title games (winning one in 2013), but they’ve never been in their own home rink for it. Full details for the game will be announced soon.
“Life is pretty good,” left winger J.D. Pogue of Canisius said. “It’s a good feeling.”
“The ‘at home’ part of that sentence is definitely unexpected,” coach Trevor Large of the Golden Griffins said. “You never know how playoffs are going to go. The conference has a lot of parity. Anybody can beat anybody. … I couldn’t be more excited for Buffalo and the Griffins to have the game at the HarborCenter.”
It took a combination of events for all of that to happen. It centered on Canisius’ 4-2 win over Niagara at the LECOM Harborcenter Sunday night. It gave the Griffins a semifinal win over the Purple Eagles by a margin of two games to one.
Meanwhile, Holy Cross took care of top-seeded RIT in the other semifinal, also winning the best-of-three matchup. That left Canisius, the No. 4 seed, and Holy Cross, No. 7, the last two teams standing after a series of upsets took out the top three seeds.
It wasn’t easy for the Golden Griffins. Their usual rivals, the Purple Eagles, were in their way all weekend; Niagara took the opener of the series Friday but lost on Saturday. Naturally, the two teams were tied at 2-2 with 20 minutes left on Sunday.
“I said to them (at intermission), I love you guys, I trust you, you know what to do,” Large said. “It’s time to go to work. … It’s pretty comforting as a coach that I didn’t have to have a motivational speech for that. They got it done, and I’m very proud.”
The game-winning goal was scored by J.D. Pogue, who had just finished serving a boarding penalty that might have been fatal had it not been for the good work of the Canisius penalty-killers.
“Coming out of the box, lots of emotions in taking that penalty and watching their power play go,” he said. “I hopped on the ice. Randy (Hernandez) has great speed on their guys going wide and was able to put the puck on net. I was able to capitalize burying the puck. It was all Randy’s work – the hard work stuff.”
The Griffins had to feel good about their chances at that point. Goalie Jacob Barczewski had been red-hot in the final weeks of the campaign, registering a goals-against average under 2.00 since February 1. A lead felt secure with the senior in the net.
But just to make sure, Canisius added some insurance with less than 10 minutes to go. Albin Nilsson of Niagara took a major boarding penalty with 9:37 left. It only took Simon Gravel 10 seconds to give the Griffins a two-goal margin.
It was the third power-play goal of the game for Canisius, so the man-advantage unit could take a long bow for their work on this night.
“The power play has been up and down and the penalty kill has given us stability – they’ve been unbelievable,” Large said. “For them to go out and get some goals – you need to win some games that way. It proved to be the way we needed to get it done.”
Niagara pulled its goaltender with more than four minutes to go. The Golden Griffins tried to score on a long distance empty-netter, but couldn’t hit the target. That meant they were called for a series of icings, bringing the puck all the way back to the Canisius end for a faceoff.
“I told them, ‘Keep doing it,’” Large said. “You know you’ll have to be in the D zone a lot. You know you’ll have to block a lot of shots. We have to find away to win the battle. We’ve been good at getting the empty-net goal, especially lately. I told the guys to keep shooting it – end the game. Maybe it didn’t work with a goal, but it does give you time to get settled in. I really liked us on faceoffs.”
But eventually, the final buzzer sounded – which was a good thing. Pogue probably wouldn’t have been up for playing more than three full games in three nights if he could avoid it.
“It’s exhausting, especially when playing a rival like that with a lot of physicality. It’s draining. But we recovered, and I thought we did a good job with it this weekend.”
Canisius bests Niagara 4-2 to advance to Atlantic Hockey final. It will be here Saturday against Holy Cross. pic.twitter.com/u66nWI1P9c
— Budd Bailey (@WDX2BB) March 13, 2023
Ryan Miotto had the other two goals for the Griffins. Glebs Prohorenkovs and Nilsson tallied for Niagara.
Canisius and Holy Cross played four times this season, and winning on the road hasn’t been a problem. Back in November, the Crusaders won in regulation and in overtime during a visit to Buffalo. Then in late February, the Griffins returned the favor with two wins in Massachusetts.
The winner of Saturday’s game will be off to the NCAA Tournament, so the game could be played on a pond in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, for all anyone cares. It will be a night when some dreams will come true.
“It’s a little shocking the way things played out, but we couldn’t be more happy. We couldn’t be more excited,” Pogue said. “It’s a great way to get some excitement in Buffalo.”
“This is why we play the game,” Large added. “It’s why we love the game we play. It’s why I coach. You get a chance for the team to play for something that they’ll remember forever.”
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