Let the games begin.
No, not the Olympics. We’re talking about the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation playoff games.
The march to Super Monday, Feb. 24 – the day the league’s three champions will be crowned – begins Wednesday for Catholic Schools in the Niagara Cup Tournament. Their public schools counterparts start to compete Thursday — all in the hope that a special threesome can rise to the occasion and add to Western New York’s reputation as a hockey power by capturing state championships in March.
The Section VI Small School Tournament figures to be the most hotly contested of the three playoff tournaments and not just because of past history. This year, three of the top four seeds in the tournament are ranked in the state Sportswriters’ poll.
The intrigue in the Section VI Large School Tournament comes courtesy of an old reliable – Williamsville North. After enduring their first losing season since the founding of the program in 1990, the Spartans rebounded big time to earn the top seed in the playoffs. In a season in which longtime coach Bob Rosen surpassed the 400-win milestone mark, North enters the postseason ranked 10th in the state and looks to win its seventh Federation playoff title – which would be second-most in league history to St. Joe’s (nine).
Nothing small-time here
This past weekend provided an early glimpse of what the games could be like in the Section VI Small School playoffs as state No. 2 West Seneca East faced state No. 5 Kenmore East and No. 11 Hamburg.
In WSE’s 3-1 win over Kenmore East, one would think there’s very little separation between the teams based on the final margin. A bad shift or two or a bounce could have easily had played a role in the final outcome. While a bounce here or there also could have also swung the momentum in favor of the Bulldogs’ favor, there was a reason why the Trojans always seemed in control of that game – a contest in which they scored a short-handed goal while down two men.
“They have that physical presence,” said Kenmore East veteran coach Kyle Pray, whose team features nine sophomores while averaging a respectable 4.1 goals per game. “They’ve got a little bit of an older crew. I think in the small schools Hamburg and especially West Seneca East are the playoff favorites.”
Hamburg, he says? Those Bulldogs are no longer flying under the radar.
They saw to that on Sunday by handing the Trojans their first loss of the season, 4-3 in overtime. That’s the first time this season the Bulldogs have beaten any of the powerful East schools (Williamsville East, Kenmore East or West Seneca East).
Pray’s squad – two years removed from winning the state title – can’t be discounted either. His Bulldogs have been the most difficult to score against this season, allowing just 22 goals in 16 games – best among small schools. Luke Stewart shared the league lead in shutouts (four) and yielded 1.34 goals-against per game.
Then there’s the team that seems to be flying below everyone’s radar, Williamsville East. The Flames (12-1-2-1) aren’t ranked in the state but they did secure the No. 2 playoff seed. They went 2-2-2 against their ranked brethren.
“I think all of the favorites are explosive offensively,” said Pray, whose team is led by Robert McNamara’s 14 goals and 26 points. But West Seneca East’s “guys have a lot more physical toughness that other teams don’t have. They have a little more grit.”
Despite Sunday’s loss, the Trojans still head into the postseason confident. Michael Benaquist ranks second in goals (22) and points (33) among the small schools (Niagara Falls’ Alex Hailey leads with 24 goals and 37 points). Benaquist not only has a scoring touch, he’s also willing to mix it up physically. David Brunka has 11 goals and 23 points for the Trojans (13-0-2-1, 12-0-2-1).
Patrolling the blue line for West Seneca East is senior and third-year team member Max Schwartzmeyer III, while team captain Brian Wasilewski logs lots of ice time and just might have the hardest shot in the league. Brandon Day is smart and can play in any situation, according to coach Dan Goldie.
“I’m happily and openly excited about this,” said Goldie of his team’s state heading into the postseason.
West Seneca East looks to keep the sectional plaque in Town Rink. The Trojans and last year’s small schools champion, West Seneca West, share the same home venue.
“It’s just an enjoyable group. They want to learn,” Goldie said. “We’re all having fun. It’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun for everybody.”
Fanning the Flames
Williamville East has reached the final each of the last three seasons (going 1-2). Leading the Flames’ push to reach another final will be goalie Max Battistoni, who along with Kenmore East’s Stewart, led the smalls schools with four shutouts. He led the league with 11 wins, while Stewart was in a three-way tie for second with eight.
Jason Cohen and Tyler Trubish led the Flames with 19 points each. The Flames have seven players with five or more goals.
Like Williamsville East, Hamburg relies on depth for scoring with eight players collecting 14 or more points. Brendan Hart (13 goals), Alex Suchan and Jordyn Bellitto have 21 points each, while Colin Mills has 19. Vinny Goodrich has emerged as John McFall’s starting goalie.
Five points separated the first through seventh seeds among the small schools, so don’t totally discount the chances of Lew-Port, North Tonawanda or Kenmore West making a run as there’s usually a surprise or two in the quarterfinals. NT has allowed a scant 28 goals.
North’s star rising
Last year was a blip on the radar screen for Williamsville North.
The Spartans play the early game on quarterfinal Saturday at Northtown Center in Amherst as they face No. 8 seed Lockport at 1 p.m.
Before last season’s one and done in the playoffs, North had reached the championship game seven straight seasons.
One of the keys to the Spartans’ resurgence has been the play of sophomore goaltender Matthew Ladd. He leads the Fed large schools in goals-against average (1.85), shutouts (four), minutes played (634:06) and shares the lead in wins (eight).
Ladd earned shutouts in a scoreless tie with Canisius and also blanked two-time defending Section VI champion Niagara-Wheatfield.
“He’s played well. It’s a whole team. It’s not really one thing,” said Rosen. “I think there was improvement from top to bottom, forwards to defense to goaltending. We’ve been strong defensively and trying to limit chances.”
Will Stryker and Sean Bailey have been solid in leading a defense corps that receives contributions from all six members.
North’s Bryce Ferrell ranks second among large school players in goals (18) and third in points (27). Brad Bailey, Sean’s twin brother, has nine goals and 17 points.
“Everybody’s stepped up and being conscious in our own zone,” Rosen said. “The kids are older … that’s helped.”
While Niagara-Wheatfield entered the season as the favorite, it experienced some bumps after a 5-1 start en route to the No. 2 seed.
Last year’s leading scorer, Anthony Vekich, has been limited to seven games and has just two goals and seven points.
While the Falcons went through a 1-3-3 stretch without Vekich, they still have playoff pedigree on their side. N-W has won four playoff championships in its six seasons as a varsity program.
Fourteen members of this year’s squad helped the Falcons reach the state semifinals last season – including Jason Durkee (nine goals, 20 points), Matt Paonessa (team-high 16 assists, 19 points) and Andrew Logar (nine goals, 18 points).
The Falcons have a date with Niagara Falls, the No. 7 seed. The Wolverines won seven games playing in Division III with small schools Lew-Port, North Tonawanda and Kenmore West, but still feature one of the most prolific scorers in the league in Hailey, a sophomore. Freshman Nicholas Lepine had 11 points, shared the team lead in power-play goals (three) and plays in all situations.
Any given game ...
Who’s going to keep a Williamsville North-Niagara-Wheatfield final from happening?
It’s an enigma, much like a good number of results from the season.
Only three large schools posted winning records in the league, yet there were numerous upsets that made scoreboard watchers do a double take.
Lancaster has trouble scoring (25 goals in 16 league games) but has won three of its last five games, including last Thursday’s 2-0 win over Williamsville North. Lancaster also beat Catholic-contender Canisius, 2-0, earlier this season. Justin DiChristopher is 4-5-1 with a 2.97 GAA.
Orchard Park, which returned 14 from last year’s 11-win team, was expected to be one of the top teams. The Quakers are the No. 3 seed but won just five league games and tied two others. However, OP did beat Canisius. The Quakers enter the playoffs on a 0-2-2 run with the ties coming against North and N-W. Tyler Riter has nine goals and 24 points to lead OP followed by Cole Schiffman’s (seven goals) and Ryan Maccarick’s 19 points each.
Frontier won four league games and six overall (including the early-season Batavia Tournament). It’s beaten Timon twice and St. Joe’s once.
“I think it’s pretty well-balanced,” Rosen said. “I think on any given night anyone can win. I think the hardest part for everybody is consistency. We lost to Lancaster our last game. They outplayed us and that just goes to show you anybody on any given night can win.”