Enter state tournament the #5 seed
by Than Acuff
With injuries running rampant through the Crested Butte Titans hockey team, the last three games of the regular season were going to be tough. And while they ended up losing all three, all is not lost as the Titans still earned the fifth seed in the state tournament and have a week to rest, recover and regroup before their first playoff game next week against Colorado Academy.
They knew going into the final stretch of games what was at stake as they were set to face the number one team in 4A in Colorado, Glenwood Springs, and follow that with back-to-back games against Steamboat in Steamboat.
The Titans got off to a good start in the three-game stretch despite their depleted roster and were fortunate enough to have Brendan Hartigan return to their line up for the big test against Glenwood on Wednesday, February 15.
“Having Hartigan back was huge,” says coach Billy Watson.
As is often needed in a seemingly David versus Goliath scenario, goaltending is massive and Titans goalie Tanner Perkins made the needed saves early in the game but as the period continued, Crested Butte started to take the upper hand. Matching the pace of Glenwood Springs and having their systems down and puck movement on point, the Titans took over the game and took advantage of a powerplay seven minutes into the first period. Grady Dietrich got around a Glenwood defenseman on a Titans breakout and fired a shot on goal. The Glenwood goalie made the first save but Dominick Cerio crashed the net to punch the rebound through for a 1-0 Titans’ lead.
Glenwood looked to shift the momentum back in their favor but the effort of Duke Sloan on defense, Hartigan’s presence all over the ice and the line of Grady Buckhanan, Rocky Marchitelli and Cael Medina returned the energy to Crested Butte’s favor to close the period with the 1-0 lead.
“We played really tight defense, forcing shots from outside,” says Watson. “It all went pretty good.”
The Titans remained on the front foot to open the second period with all three lines keeping Glenwood guessing and shutting off their typical wide-open breakouts. More net front congestion further frustrated Glenwood and Crested Butte was due a goal but struggled to finish off opportunities.
A series of Crested Butte penalties had Glenwood in a five-on-three situation and that proved too much for the Titans to hold off as Glenwood tied the game 12 minutes into the second period. Crested Butte killed off the remainder of the second penalty and returned to top form to close the second setting the stage for an upset.
But Hartigan’s injury proved too much to have him on the ice in the third period and the coaches made the necessary changes to accommodate. With both Hartigan and Colm Piccaro out of the game, the forced adjustments depleted the Titans attack. Glenwood scored three minutes into the third period and despite the heroic efforts of the Titans, the tying goal eluded them as they lost 2-1.
“It was a close one,” says Watson. “We had a lot of opportunities, we just didn’t finish the ones we should have.”
The Titans then headed to Steamboat Springs for their last two games of the regular season on Friday and Saturday, February 17-18. With Hartigan officially out for the games and additional players sick, Watson was down to two lines of forwards with two extras and four defensemen for the two games.
Crested Butte opened the scoring on their game Friday night when Sam Dukeman scored his 18th goal of the season off assists from Dietrich and Marshall Spann. Steamboat responded almost immediately but the Titans retook the lead in the seventh minute of the second period as Dietrich scored with Medina and Dukeman combining on the assist.
Steamboat tied the game back up and the two teams skated through a scoreless third period, but Steamboat scored in the opening minute of overtime to edge out the 3-2 win.
“We played them tough and played well system-wise,” says Watson. “But, once again, we had our opportunities and couldn’t finish them.”
A short bench and a bad nights’ sleep in a hotel then proved too much for the Titans when they returned to Steamboat’s ice on Saturday as they fell 4-0.
“With a short bench I expected us to be tired but not that bad,” says Watson. “There were multiple factors, but we need to be able to battle through that. We were making their goalie look good too.”
The silver-lining to the three-game skid came once the post season seedings were released as Crested Butte earned the fifth seed in the 4A state tournament. The seeding means they have over a week before they face Colorado Academy in the first round of the tournament allowing players to recover in time for the post season.
“I like the way it looks for us,” says Watson. “Most of the teams on our side of the bracket we haven’t played at full strength. Everyone’s excited to get everyone back and play the best hockey we’ve played all season. If there’s any team that can bounce back, it’s this team.”