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Titans hockey battles Aspen over weekend

Ski town throw down

by Than Acuff

The energy was electric at the Jorgenson Events Center in Gunnison on Friday, February 8 as the Crested Butte Titans hockey team hosted the Aspen Skiers in the first of two games over the two-day stretch, with conference title implications on the line.

The stands were packed with fans leading cheers, with the West Elk Hockey Association mini-Mites escorting the high school players onto the ice.

The Titans stood at the top of the conference standings, with Aspen just one game back in second place, and when the puck dropped, the game shifted into overdrive as both squads looked to establish their presence on the ice.

Once again, Titans coach Billy Watson had different lines for the evening, continuing to work on finding just the right mix with the post-season in the near future.

While previous experiments had a debilitating effect on the Titans in the early stages of games, Watson’s latest incarnation had little impact on the Titans play as they took on their new roles without hesitation.

“I figured we could make that adjustment with the defense we have and it seemed to work out all right,” says Watson.

After several shifts of back-and-forth hockey with Titans goalie Shaughn Rourke coming up big in the first two minutes, the Titans broke the seal on the scoring in the third minute as Joe Coburn chased a puck into the corner to win it, peeled out along the wall and fed Joseph Stock in front of the net and Stock slotted it past the Aspen goalie for a 1-0 lead.

Aspen responded on a power play three minutes later as a shot from the point was tipped past Rourke. Aspen continued to pour on the pressure but Crested Butte withstood the attack for the remainder of the period.

“I think we came out with a lot of energy but we seemed a little nervous with the big crowd,” says Watson.

The Titans ramped it up in the second period as they found themselves on a five-minute power play early in the period. Crested Butte set up and continued to generate chances on net but it wasn’t until late in the extended power play that they found success as a couple of quick passes between Dom Piccaro and Joseph Stock eventually set up Jakub Kozanyi for a goal and a 2-1 Titans lead.

Thirty seconds later, Graham Barrett bullied his way through two Aspen players to go to goal and net the second goal of the power play, and the third Titans goal of the game.

“I think they ran the power play perfectly,” says Watson. “We were able to switch power play lines up and it kept them moving and I was happy with the production they had.”

Once again though, penalties brought the Titans down as Aspen connected for their second goal of the game on a power play to pull within one.

But in true Friday night high school hockey fashion, the Titans struck back 30 seconds later as Ted Trujillo gathered the puck deep in Aspen’s zone and dropped a pass back to John Smith at the point. Smith settled the pass, took one look and picked the low corner through traffic for a 4-2 Titans lead.

Up 4-2 heading into the third period, the game was far from settled as the two teams continued to trade off attacks. After a massive effort killing off another penalty, the Titans tacked on an insurance goal four minutes into the third period when the line of Trujillo, Matt Solanik and Kaden Hardesty delivered again, with Solanik netting the goal.

Another string of Crested Butte penalties opened a slight opportunity for Aspen but they looked fatigued by the high-octane game and the Titans held off any semblance of an attack for the 5-2 win. Rourke finished the game with 37 saves.

“I’m pretty hard on these guys and we were pretty darn close to playing to our full potential, give or take a few plays,” says Watson. “It was good to see.”

The two teams met again on Saturday, February 9 and immediately fell into a classic Western shootout, rife with penalties and momentum swings.

Piccaro put the Titans on the board first but Aspen came back with two goals and carried their 2-1 lead through the second period.

“It took us a while to get into our groove,” says Watson.

Aspen opened the third period with plenty of time left on a five-minute major but Barrett scored a shorthanded goal in the opening minute to tie the game 2-2.

Despite the potential gut punch a shorthanded goal can deliver, Aspen took the game back, scoring two more goals during the extended power play to take a 4-2 lead.

“That five-minute major put us down,” says Watson.

Two minutes later though, Aspen picked up a penalty and Crested Butte stepped up to the opportunity as Stock scored off an assist from Kozanyi. Twenty seconds later, Piccaro scored his second of the game and the teams were tied up 4-4 with eight minutes left.

“I thought it worked out well and we were trying to pick our way back into the game,” says Watson.

The straw that broke the Titans’ back came two minutes later as another penalty gave Aspen another power play and they scored to make it 5-4 and held off the Titans for the win.

“After that it seemed like we were beat,” says Watson. “In our five losses, four of them we took majors in and that killed us. The biggest thing was that we played down to their level.”

The team took a hit over the weekend to their roster too, as they lost defensemen Jack Lambert and Rachel Potoker to injury for the time being.

“We were dealt the cards we have and we have to just move forward and have the guys step up,” says Watson. “We may just have to bring a few guys back defensively.”

The Titans will head to Battle Mountain on Friday, February 15 and if they win, they will seal the conference title. They return home on Saturday for the final regular season game of the year as they host Palmer at 4 p.m. in Gunnison. After that, it’s on to the post-season the following week.

“We got the lines we want and I think we’re right there,” says Watson. “I don’t think there’s another team in the state with three lines like ours. We just have to keep working hard.”

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