Thursday, June 4, 2020

CB Titans hockey hitting their stride at end of regular season

Knock off third seeded team in state

by Than Acuff

It was slated to be a tough week for the Crested Butte Titans boys hockey team with six games over eight days, including two against third-ranked Valor Christian. In the end, the Titans finished the week winning four of six games, including an upset over Valor Christian, and are on pace to host their first round game of the state tournament next week with one final regular season game scheduled for Saturday, February 18.

“It was a lot of hockey,” says head coach Joey Otsuka.

They opened the frantic week Friday and Saturday, February 3-4, splitting two games on the road against Pueblo. After a two-day break from games, they stepped back onto the ice to host two games against Valor Christian, who were undefeated and ranked third in the state.

Tuesday’s game played out as feared, as Valor Christian skated to a 7-0 win over the Titans. It wasn’t a dominant performance; in fact the Titans matched the speed and play of Valor Christian. It really came down to a handful of mistakes that Valor Christian capitalized on. As a result, the team was focused on the next task and the rematch on Wednesday was a completely different game, as the Titans handed Valor Christian a 4-3 upset.

“The biggest difference was the players’ realization and confidence that they could beat that team,” says Otsuka. “We were all on the same page and when I opened the door to the locker room the next day before the game, everyone was silent, focused and ready to go.”

The Titans broke the scoreless tie 11 minutes into the game during a penalty kill when Josh Wallin scooped up the puck and charged his way up the ice to score a short-handed goal.

“It was the most football-style hockey play I’ve ever seen,” says Otsuka. “It was something the boys rallied behind.”

Two minutes later Jordi Nichols scored off an assist from Gage Meredith and the Titans were up 2-0 on the third-ranked team in the state.

Valor Christian netted a goal late in the first period to close in on the Titans and then tied the game 2-2 late in the second period. But energy and intensity were on the side of the Titans as they struck back with a little over a minute left to take back the lead. Then, the potential soul-crusher came when Valor Christian tied the game back up in the final second of the period sending the two teams into the third period locked in a 3-3 tie.

“There was not a drop of fear on the bench after that goal,” says Otsuka.

The Titans fired right back in the first minute of the third period as Gage Meredith scored off an assist from Nichols and the Titans held on the remaining 16 minutes of the game to win 4-3.

“I don’t coach holding on to a lead, so I still emphasized that puck possession, offensive pressure is our game, not defense,” says Otsuka. “We went out there to hold the puck and try to score again. It was a good win but it’s still just two points and I told them we still have a lot of work to do.”

They carried their momentum into their fifth game of the eight-day stretch, handing Coronado a 5-3 loss led by a hat trick from Lucas Solanik. The game was far from perfect for the Titans as they came out slow and Coronado scored in the second minute of the game.

The Titans fired right back, scoring two minutes later as Nichols punched the puck up the boards to Solanik and Solanik scored. The Titans then enjoyed five minutes of a power-play that eventually turned into a two-man advantage for the Titans and they converted as Patrick Seifert found Luke Collins slipping in off the point to feed him the puck and Collins scored.

Despite being outplayed, Coronado was determined to continue pressing and their effort paid off in the waning moments of the first period as they stuffed the slot with players and shoved the puck through the mass to tie the game 2-2.

It took all of seven seconds for the Titans to take back the lead though. Josh Wallin, who had been decimating Coronado players all game with his fast and physical play, won the opening face-off of the second period to feed Graham Barrett and Barrett scored for a 3-2 Titans’ lead. The Titans killed off two penalties midway through the second period and once at even strength, attacked a Solanik chased down a loose puck to blow by the last Coronado defenseman and score for a 4-2 Titans’ lead.

Coronado was undeterred though and caught a break toward the end of the second period to score and pull back to within one, with one period left to play.

The Titans killed off another penalty to start the third period and then set up shop in Coronado’s zone for the better part of the next three minutes. As Coronado scrambled to cover passing lanes and pick up men, the Titans’ passing opened up a spot for Solanik and he slipped into the high slot to take a pass from Collins and score to finish off his hat trick and seal the 5-3 Titans’ win.

“The forwards and defense find comfort in the rhythm of the game and that combination was just too much for Coronado,” says Otsuka.

The Titans still had one game to go as they hosted the Kent Denver Sun Devils on Saturday, February 11. While the Titans outshot Kent Denver 39-19 in the game, it took a three-goal effort in the second period to make the difference. Nichols opened the scoring in the game early in the first period but Kent Denver responded to tie the game 1-1. Solanik then scored on a power-play 13 minutes into the second period and Barrett scored two minutes later off an assist from Wallin to put the Titans up 3-1 heading into the third period.

“We were able to get in our rhythm and change lines on them and wear them down,” says Otsuka.

Kent Denver scored three minutes into the third period, leaving plenty of time to come back but Crested Butte held them off to win their fourth game in eight days, third in a row, and move up to 11th place in the state rankings.

“They stayed with us and pestered us and our guys were getting frustrated,” explains Otsuka. “Emotions got in the way of us playing good hockey.”

The Titans will close the regular season on Saturday, February 18 when they host Palmer in Gunnison at 3 p.m. Provided they win that final game, they should be set up to host their first-round game of the state tournament on Tuesday, February 21.

“They got two days off this week and I just want them to reset themselves and then on Wednesday we get back to drills and tightening up the nuts and bolts for the last game and the playoffs,” says Otsuka.

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