By Budd Bailey

As the playoffs approach in March, the pecking order in the Atlantic Hockey Association is quite clear.

It’s as clear as mud.

Entering the weekend’s play, the college hockey league’s standings were basically a mess. AIC had the lead with 45 points. Then came Canisius at 34 points, RIT at 32, Bentley and Army at 31, and  Air Force, Niagara and Sacred Heart at 29. Only Mercyhurst (21) and Holy Cross (19) were out of the picture, at least for the time being.

“I love it, and I think our guys love it,” Niagara coach Jason Lammers said. “This is why you play. Our goal is to be the best team we can at the end of the year. It doesn’t matter who we are playing and when we are playing.”

Niagara had a chance to deliver a little more chaos to the situation with a home-and-home series with Canisius this weekend. The opener was Friday night at the LECOM Harborcenter, and the Purple Eagles came through with a 4-1 victory before 895 on Canisius’ home ice. Niagara (11-16-2, 9-9-2) thus jumped to 32 points – only two points behind the Golden Griffins (13-12-3, 10-9-2). The AHA has to be one of the most closely bunched conferences in any sports in the college ranks. There are no easy nights allowed in Atlantic Hockey these days.

A Canisius-Niagara game usually is an interesting matchup, and the teams came through on Friday with a game that had some fascinating twists and turns. It started with six quick shots by the Eagles in the opening minutes, but Griffins’ goalie Jacob Barczewski was up to the task every time.

The game settled down from there. Without much warning in the 18th minutes of the period, Canisius worked a nice passing play on a break into the Niagara zone. Lee Lapid took a pass from Keaton Mastrondonato while crossing in front of the net, and saw nothing but open net in front of them. Just like that, Canisius had a 1-0 lead.

It stayed that way for more than 20 minutes. Canisius had some good chances in the second period but couldn’t quite finish them against NU goalie Chad Veltri. Barczewski looked very solid in keeping the Purple Eagles off the scoreboard.

Then came the break Niagara was looking for. On a power play, a shot from the blue line bounced around in front of the goal – and Ryan Cox was there to knock the puck home with only 4.1 seconds left in the period. What do you know? Barczewski could be beaten. Those late goals in a period are always helpful to the scoring team and bit demoralizing to the other side.

“It just injects you with energy,” Lammers said. “It was a good job by Coxie. He’s been doing a good job of getting to those spots. He gets a stick on it and makes the play.”

“Anytime a team scores with four seconds left in a period, it stings a bit more,” Canisius coach Trevor Large said. “But the reality is that it was a good play by them on the power play, and a good tip.”

Ryan went back to work at the start of the second period. A bit of a jumble along the board led to a pass to the forward – and he had nothing but open space in front of him. Cox snapped the puck home for a 2-1 Niagara lead on a play that looked like a penalty shot.

“It was a neutral zone play,” he said. “I’m not sure how I got so wide-open. … I had a bunch of space and I just tried to bury it. I was kind of surprised, but I knew I could make a good move and try to bury it.”

Chris Harpur added some insurance in the final five minutes. He carried the puck into the Canisius zone and it came loose around the crease. The defenseman only needed to tap the puck into the net to make it a 3-1 game.

“It was just laying there, and I got a second stick on it and went five-hole,” he said.

Harpur than scored an empty-netter with less than a minute to go, and that ended the scoring. The grad student came into the game with one goal for the season, and left it with three.

“It was a pretty intense game,” Cox said. “It was tight right until the end. There was a lot of energy in the building, and it was fun to play.”

On the flip side, Large wasn’t too impressed by his team’s performance.

“The better team won,” he said. “I thought we weren’t as connected as a group as we needed to be. You look at all areas. They were better than us on the power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, goaltending. We’ve got to be better.”

You’d think that a win on the road might give Niagara some momentum when the rematch is played Saturday night up the I-190 at Dwyer Arena. But this is Atlantic Hockey, where momentum often doesn’t last as long as a day. Canisius has only played in one weekend conference series this season in which a team has won two games over the opponent.

Now, of course, the Griffins hope the trend continues.

“Sweeps are difficult,” Large said. “There’s great parity in Atlantic Hockey. That’s usually how you can tell, when it is difficult to get sweeps. We’ve had consistency generating points every weekend, and it’s the only choice we have now. Whether we win or lose tomorrow, we need to be better for it.”

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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