League title on the line this weekend
The Crested Butte Wolfpack hockey team took one step closer toward its quest for the Rocky Mountain Youth Hockey League regular season title with a win over the Gunnison Blades on Monday February 4 at Big Mine Ice Arena.
The Blades came into the game fired-up on Monday night, looking to avenge a loss to the Wolfpack earlier in the season.
They struck in the first 15 seconds of the game when Kilioi Miller took a pass from Shane McGuinness on the opening face-off and skated untouched to the Wolfpack net to score.
After a couple of minutes of puck-chasing scramble hockey, the Wolfpack regrouped to pick up the pace, winning foot races to loose pucks and challenging the Blades players in their own zone.
The Blades were primed to add to their 1-0 lead when a penalty left the Wolfpack a man down, but John Tharp and Robbie Holleran had something else in mind. The two players are in constant communication almost telepathically and have a knack for finding each other at any time.
A prime example of their playmaking came during the Blades power play when Tharp chased after a puck deep in the Blades corner. Once Holleran saw Tharp release after the puck, Holleran crashed in front of the Blades net to receive a no-look backhand from Tharp and stuff it past the Gunnison goalie to tie the game 1-1.
The Blades responded a minute later, holding the puck in the Wolfpack zone during their power play. Crested Butte struggled to clear the puck as the Blades skated in and out of the high slot, firing shots through traffic.
Wolfpack goalie Zach Van Dyke caught sight of a shot by Chris Schmalz to the upper triangle at the last second and reached with his glove for the grab. Van Dyke punched the puck up in the air and Miller swatted it out of the air past Van Dyke for a 2-1 Blades lead.
The Wolfpack continued to challenge the Blades deep in their zone, forcing a number of defensive miscues. Tharp pounced on a loose puck that dribbled off of a Gunnison player’s stick and pushed the puck back to a wide-open Ben Frame at the point. Frame fired a wrist-shot that found its way through the chaos in the slot and past the Gunnison goalie, tying the game 2-2 at the close of the first period.
Both teams skated hard in the second period, searching to break the deadlock and gain momentum, but the hustle merely resulted in scattered play and three power play opportunities for Gunnison.
The Blades appeared to break the tie on their third power play with six seconds left in the second period, but a penalty called during the melee denied the Blades the go-ahead goal.
The Wolfpack looked fatigued in the opening minutes of the third period, but tough work from the Crested Butte defense and a couple of key saves from Van Dyke managed to hold off the Blades attack.
The Wolfpack turned it on midway through the third period to match Gunnison’s hustle and continue pressure on the Blades’ defense in their zone.
The effort paid off when Kyle Hecker cut off a Blades breakout attempt up the boards and flicked the puck to Tharp in front of the Gunnison goal.
The Gunnison net minder stopped Tharp on his first two point-blank attempts, but one last poke from Tharp pushed the puck out of reach of the Gunnison goalie putting the Wolfpack on top 3-2.
One minute later, a Blades player broke through the neutral zone for a one-on-one with Van Dyke to tie the game. Van Dyke pushed off his line to cut off the angle but the Gunnison skater slid past him to open up a seam on the left post. Unable to turn and recover, Van Dyke dove backwards onto his back to shut off the opening, denying the Blades player the tying goal.
Holleran added an insurance goal to the Wolfpack lead when a mix-up by two Gunnison players left the puck unattended in front of the Blades goal and Holleran swooped in to score on a wrist-shot.
The Blades closed the game with a power play but the Wolfpack defense handcuffed Gunnison in the neutral zone, holding to them to zero shots in the final 90 seconds for the 4-2 win.
The win brings the Wolfpack’s record to an impressive 12-0 with two games left in the regular season. The last two games could be the Wolfpack’s toughest challenge to date as they head southwest for a double-header against Durango on Saturday, February 9.
The two teams have yet to play each other this year and the games will determine who enters the post-season tournament as the number one seed—Durango is also undefeated, with a record of 12-0-1.