by Amy Moritz
It's the final most people were expecting but when Canisius plays Mercyhurst for the Atlantic Hockey Championship at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena at 7 tonight, it should be one entertaining game.
Canisius: The Golden Griffins are on a seven-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the nation. They also come into the final as the lowest seed in the 10-year history of the league to make the title game. Canisius finished the season seventh in Atlantic Hockey. This is the first title game with an NCAA spot on the line for the Ice Griffs. The program has one other championship game in its Division I history, making the 1999 MAAC championship game which they lost to Holy Cross. The MAAC did not have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament at the time.
Mercyhurst: The sixth-seeded Lakers are making their first appearance in the Atlantic Hockey title game since 2009 when they lost to Air Force, 2-0. The Lakers won the title in 2005, 3-2, over Quinnipiac and went to the NCAA tournament in 2001 from the MAAC. So the program has experience this time of year. The Lakers also have Atlantic Hockey's scoring champion. Sophomore Matthew Zay led the conference in scoring with 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points during league play this season.
Keys for Canisius: Goal scoring. The Griffs have nearly doubled their scoring in March, averaging 4.14 goals in their seven-game winning streak after averaging just 2.18 goals per game before the streak. Canisius is also enjoying some good old-fashioned "puck luck" winning one-goal games. The Griffs were 0-8-0 in one-goal games before the streak. During their last seven wins, four have been by one goal.
Add to that solid goaltending for the Griffs. Junior Tony Capobianco has been steady and consistent all season for Canisius. He's been solid during this playoff run and getting lots of work. He set the Atlantic Hockey record for saves with 201 in five games.
Low seed final: After RIT and Air Force were eliminated from the tournament (thanks to Niagara and Canisius) Meryhurst coach Rick Gotkin joked that it was nice Atlantic Hockey decided to continue with the tournament. Then Canisius goes and knocks off No. 1 Niagara and Mercyhurst eliminated No. 3 Holy Cross in a three-game quarterfinal and dumped No. 4 UConn, 4-1, in the semifinals.
“I've been saying for years that a six or a seven seed is getting closer and closer to winning this league,” Gotkin said after the Lakers' semifinal win. “This is a pretty darn good league and we have not had an easy night really with anybody. I think the fact that you see a six and a seven seed emerge into the title game, it doesn't surprise me at all. And, I know that the six or seven seed champion will represent our league very well in the NCAA tournament.”
Fun Fact: Canisius coach Dave Smith spent three seasons (2002-05) as an assistant coach to Rick Gotkin at Merychurst. He helped the Lakers win the 2003 MAAC title and the 2005 Atlantic Hockey title.
Series History: It's almost as even as even can be. In postseason meetings, the series is tied, 4-4-0. In the last 10 games, the series is tied, 5-5-0. This year, the home team won each of the three meetings, giving the Lakers a 2-1 advantage. Dec. 18, Mercyhurst won, 3-2 in overtime in Erie, Pa. In the home-and-home series at the end of January, Canisius won 4-2 at Buffalo State and the Lakers won, 5-2, back in Erie.