Watertown, Mass.-- The Canisius College hockey team is coming together as a team at just the right time for the second consecutive season. The Golden Griffins will be back in Rochester next weekend to defend their Atlantic Hockey Association Tournament championship after defeating Bentley, 3-2, on Sunday night at the John A. Ryan Skating Arena.
"At this point it's one team. It really feels like that on the bench. We know we can trust anybody out there to play hard," said Canisius head coach Dave Smith.
Canisius won the best-of-three series, 2-1, after losing the first game, 5-4, in overtime. The Golden Griffins were on the verge of elimination Saturday, trailing 4-1 to Bentley, but Smith's team rallied for three goals to force overtime, eventually winning the game in the second extra session.
Mitch McCrank would supply all the scoring the Golden Griffins would need on Sunday night as the junior from Haileybury, Ontario notched his first collegiate hat trick.
"He's an emotional young man. I couldn't be happier and more proud of what he did tonight," explained Smith.
His first goal of the night, at the 11:56 mark of the first period, came just 50 seconds after Bentley had taken a 1-0 lead on a Brett Gensler rebound tally.
After Alex Grieve scored a power play tally to give Bentley a 2-1 lead, McCrank responded to even the score at two. He camped out on the weak side with the Griffs on the man advantage and roofed a feed from Doug Jessey over the glove of Bentley goaltender Branden Komm.
McCrank scored the game winning tally 8:52 into the third and final period of the series on a nice passing sequence as the Griffs were transitioning up ice.
"It was a nice play by my line. Shane Conacher chipped it up the boards. I saw that Ralph [Cuddemi] got it and I knew I could beat my guy up the ice. I went hard to the net and Ralph sauced it over. I think I just got it as it hit the ice and it managed to go five-hole," said McCrank.
McCrank's line with Ralph Cuddemi and Shane Conacher was as big a reason as any that Canisius is moving onto the semifinals.
"We put that line together late in the year. There is a lot of hockey IQ on that line. They scored six of our last eight goals [in the series]," said Smith.
"We just have a lot of respect for each other. We know we're all good players and it's funny how it just clicked. I'm glad it came together here," said McCrank.
Canisius allowed 40 shots on goal, but a lot of those were from the perimeter and the physicality of the Golden Griffins seemed to wear down the Falcons.
"We had to reset after last night. We had a mental practice today. We didn't have a physical practice. We reinforced how we want to play. That's a sign of how physical we played all weekend, but I thought we had the physical edge all weekend," explained Smith.
Senior goaltender Tony Capobianco was exceptional for much of the series and came through when his team most needed a lift. With his team trailing 4-1 Saturday night, Smith had a simple message for his star goaltender.
"I talked to him last night after the second period. I reminded [Capobianco], ‘Stand on your head until we get hot.' He did and he hasn't stopped. He's the MVP of the weekend. He was front and center," said Smith.
Smith, who shrugged off any comparisons to last year's team also being a No. 7 seed, said he would enjoy the series win before focusing on Mercyhurst, the team's semifinal opponent.
"They're a great hockey team. They have a lot of offensive depth. We've played them three times this year. They're well coached. They're going to be a handful, but let's get home first and watch some great movies," said Smith.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.