The last-second heroics were set up first when Air Force tied the game with just 68 seconds remaining, scoring short-handed with the goalie pulled. Tony Thomas redirected the puck into the back of the net off a shot from the point to tie the contest at three.
The Griffs, however, were able to take advantage on the ensuing power play. In the dying seconds of the third period, sophomore Mitch McCrank fired a shot from the blue line. The puck deflected off the stick of sophomore Cody Freeman in the high slot and went to Gibbons on the wing. The junior then fired it in on the open net for the game-winning tally with just 9.1 seconds left, scoring his team-best 17th goal of the season.
"Two big power-play goals in the third period were the difference tonight," said Canisius head coach Dave Smith. "Our team showed great maturity and resolve to keep striking and getting the one-goal advantage each time, limiting Air Force's momentum."
Junior Patrick Sullivan led the Griffs with two goals in the win, while junior Ryan Bohrer also scored for Canisius in the victory.
Junior Tony Capobianco stopped 40 shots for Canisius, improving to a perfect 3-0 in his postseason career.
Bohrer gave the Griffs the early lead, netting his fifth goal of the season 11:57 into the contest. Freshman Stephen Miller forced a turnover in the neutral zone, allowing sophomore Carl Larsson and Bohrer to skate in on a 2-on-1. Larsson gave the puck to Bohrer on the wing and the junior returned it with a nice pass over the stick of the Air Force defender. Larsson skated in on a 1-on-1 but the Falcon netminder made the initial save. Bohrer was there, however, to knock in the rebound for the only tally of the first period.
The Falcons knotted the game with 13:24 remaining in the second frame, scoring on a rebound of their own. Off a 3-on-2 rush, Kyle De Laurell found the loose puck in front and knocked it in for the 1-1 score.
Less than three minutes later, Sullivan gave the Griffs back their lead. Sophomore Doug Jessey sent a pass toward the goal from the blue line. Sullivan gathered the pass and snuck the puck past the Air Force goalie near-post for the 2-1 lead. Senior Ben Parker also recorded an assist on Sullivan's sixth goal of the season at the 9:11 mark of the second stanza.
Air Force once again answered the Canisius tally, scoring with 5:15 remaining in the second. After a Canisius turnover in the neutral zone, Stephen Carew, gained possession of the puck, skated it into the Griffs zone and around a Canisius defender and beat Capobianco from right in front of net, knotting the contest at two.
Sullivan was then credited with his second goal of the game to give the Griffs a 3-2 advantage with 12:04 remaining in regulation. On the power play, McCrank fired a shot toward goal from the blue line that Sullivan blocked right in front of the goal. With the puck then loose right in front, an Air Force defender knocked it in to give Canisius the late lead.
The teams then battled through the dramatic swings of momentum in the game's final 68 seconds, ending with Gibbons' tally to give Canisius a 1-0 lead in the best 2-of-3 series.
Air Force finished the game with a 43-26 advantage in shots on the night, including a 16-6 edge in the game's final frame. Canisius won the special teams battle, going 2-for-3 on the power play and killing both Air Force extra-man advantages.
Canisius now looks to advance in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament with one more victory over the Falcons. The Griffs have their first opportunity tomorrow night in Colorado with game time slated for 9:05 p.m. ET.
Game Notes: Canisius last won five-straight games from Jan. 9 to Jan. 21, 2001 ... The win ended a 10-game winless streak for the Griffs against Air Force (Falcons were 5-0-5 in the last 10 versus Canisius) ... Gibbons and Freeman have both recorded at least one point in the last six games ... Sullivan was credited with the power-play goal due to being the last offensive player to touch the puck ... Sullivan scored two goals in a game for the second time in his career (also against RIT on Nov. 10, 2011) ... It also marks the 13th time that a Canisius player scored two goals in a Division I postseason game.