All eyes on goal | AspenTimes.com

All eyes on goal

Jon Maletz

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

There’s reason for Aspen hockey coach Al Butler to be optimistic these days. His Skiers are ranked third and fourth in the state, depending on whether you read the Rocky Mountain News or The Denver Post. They also return five seniors and a supporting cast worthy of the preseason hype. “I’m very excited, and I know the boys are too,” Butler said Tuesday during practice at Lewis Ice Arena. “We’re rated high, but I think we belong there.”In their first action of the season this weekend, the Skiers walked away from the King of the Mountain Tournament in Vail with two wins in three games. They outscored Battle Mountain and Summit – the second- and fifth-ranked teams, respectively, in the Rocky Mountain News preseason poll – by a combined 7-3 before falling to eventual champion Steamboat Springs, 2-1.The experience was wholly positive, Butler said. His team “outplayed, outworked and outshot” Steamboat Springs. Aspen had 16 shot attempts to the Sailors’ three in the third period but could not capitalize. Four one-on-one opportunities in the final 15 minutes went awry.”We moved the puck really well, we just need to finish more,” senior forward Nicky Anastas said Tuesday. “We played well considering that game we lost we should’ve won. We’re pleased.”Butler was satisfied, considering he received few points from key contributors like Anastas, Fyrwald and Tyler Moore. Ice time has been sparse for the team, which didn’t begin formal practice until Nov. 13. And those players who played extended fall sports seasons are still working to find their stride, Butler said. All five seniors were members of Aspen’s state semifinal soccer team.

“Once we get our feet underneath us, those guys will explode,” Butler said. “They had great success in soccer. They’re expecting that they can have the same success here.”

Other players shouldered the load in Vail. Junior defenseman Simon Dolginow and sophomore Tommy Mines scored goals in Aspen’s win Friday over Battle Mountain. Saturday against Summit, Dolginow and junior Taylor Feldman gave the Skiers the early lead with two first-period scores. Junior Wily Klein stretched the Aspen lead to three in the second period. “Our first and second lines have the talent to compete with anybody, and our third line [Klein, Feldman and Galen Means] is strong as well,” Butler said. “All these guys have good skill, great leadership, work ethic and a will to win. You can’t teach heart, and they have it.”Saturday’s loss resembled Aspen’s first-round exit from the state tournament last year. The then 12th-seeded Skiers outshot fifth-seeded Machebeuf, 8-4, during the first period but trailed by two after the Buffaloes connected on their first two attempts. Aspen, trailing 4-1 with 15 minutes to play, ran out of time. Machebeuf also ousted Aspen from the 2005 state tournament with a 3-1 quarterfinal win.

Both losses remain fresh in Fyrwald’s mind.”Yeah, it weighs on me, but we have to get past it,” Fyrwald said. “We have a lot of pressure to perform and that’s nothing new. All we can do is hope for the best.”If the Skiers are to be among the state’s best at season’s end and better their 9-9-2 mark from 2006, Butler said they must concentrate on team chemistry. He’s also been stressing the importance of agility, speed and puck handling.Tuesday, Aspen was busy off the ice. Players worked on stick hops, where they cradled a small, wooden ball, then flicked it over a stick laying on the floor and controlled it again on the opposite side. They practiced handling, dribbling the balls in figure eights between pairs of hockey gloves. They jumped rope and performed various other exercises.

“When I think about where we are now and where we should be, we’re ahead of the curve,” Butler said.Friday’s game with defending state champion Peak to Peak and Saturday’s with Rampart should give Aspen a strong indication how much it has progressed. All the pieces the Skiers need to challenge at the state level are in place, Anastas and Fyrwald said. “It will be a good test for sure,” Anastas said. “There’s pressure on us and high expectations. The whole town takes pride in their hockey program. They want to keep putting out winners.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is jmaletz@aspentimes.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.