By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Imagine the UCLA men’s basketball team coming to Buffalo and losing to Canisius.
Friday night was the ice hockey version of that sort of night for the Golden Griffins.
Canisius was matched against North Dakota, one of the blue bloods of the sport. The Fighting Hawks have won eight NCAA championships, the last coming in 2016, and they have appeared in the Frozen Four 22 times.
Not only that, but North Dakota was ranked 13th in the country entering the game even though the Hawks had a 9-7-1 record. And the team had never lost to a school in the Atlantic Hockey Conference.
History, however, usually doesn’t win games. Canisius (now 7-9-2) came away with a 3-1 win that delighted more than 1,500 in attendance at HarborCenter.
“It’s obviously a big win for the program,” coach Trevor Large of the Griffins said. “It’s great for the Canisius community. It was an electric night, and a special moment for our guys.”
Even from the start
Canisius stayed right with North Dakota from the opening faceoff. Both teams had trouble generating much offense for long stretches, as it seemed like there was always someone in the wrong colored uniform in the way of a pass. That might have been a factor in what quickly turned into a rugged contest, with a ton of hits on both sides and some minor skirmishes along the way.
The Griffins grabbed the lead late in the first period when David Parrottino’s perfect deflection of a Dylan McLaughlin shot from the point became the game’s first goal. But the Hawks tied it while short-handed late in the second period.
That set up a dramatic third period. Canisius only needed less than two minutes to take the lead back. Cameron Heath hustled to turn a two-on-one break into a three-on-one break that led to what turned into the game-winning goal.
“I was trying to skate up the ice,” Heath said. “(Nick Hutchison) gave me a great pass. He caught me off-guard by giving it right back to me. There was kind of a wide-open net there. “
It was a nice moment, but it was no time to celebrate too much. More than 18 minutes on the clock remained, and North Dakota certainly wouldn’t go down meekly.
“We had some experience last week at Union with a couple of close games,” Large said. “Any team is going to push. But we handled that with hard play. We took a couple of penalties but we stayed together.”
It was a good thing Canisius goalie Blake Weyrick had his back to the scoreboard. He couldn’t see the shot total for North Dakota quick rise during the rest of the third period. Weyrick got a little help twice from friendly goal posts – the ping of those shots filled the arena – but otherwise he was rock solid in stopping all 17 ND shots. In contrast, Canisius finished with 14 shots for the game.
“I felt really good,” Weyrick said. “It’s nice when you have a great team in front of you. They made my job really easy tonight. I’m grateful for that. Our defense plays with a lot of intensity. I try to reciprocate what they bring.”
Large called Weyrick his best penalty killer, but the other guys on that unit were superb as well. North Dakota went 0 for 5 with the extra man, and that gave a huge lift to Canisius.
“The penalty kill is the biggest reason why you have consistent winning in my opinion,” Large said. “Taylor Nelson did a great job. … Attitude and effort are needed on the penalty kill.”
Weyrick added, “I owe those guys a lot. But they know I’m on a college budget, so they’re good about it.”
Grant Meyer mercifully ended the suspense with an empty net goal with about seven seconds left, and the win was in the books. It was the 10th time in Canisius history that the school has defeated a ranked opponent in hockey. The game was a great advertisement for college hockey as a sport; remember that the Frozen Four comes to Buffalo in April.
Meanwhile, the hope for Canisius is to use this win as a springboard for the rest of the season.
“That’s the plan,” Large said. “Every game, you look to learn. We’ve been doing that all year long. Some of that happened tonight. We’ve got them again (Saturday night at HarborCenter). We’ve got to recover quickly, but our goal is to beat them again.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)