AHS hockey enters state playoffs as No. 1 seed
Aspen Times Sportswriter
The Aspen High hockey team opens the Colorado High School Hockey League State Playoffs on Saturday in Colorado Springs as the No. 1 seed in the 12-team field.
Aspen, 14-2 on the season, aims to avenge its heartbreaking defeat in the championship game last February, when Liberty tied the game at 1-1 in the final minutes of regulation, then scored in the first sudden-death overtime period to snatch the title from Aspen.
However, Aspen coach Mark LeRose, said Aspen is taking it one game at a time, a quest the team is calling “Mission 3W.”
The top four seeds in the playoffs have opening-round byes, meaning when Aspen plays in Colorado Springs on Saturday at 1:15 p.m., against the lowest-ranked team that advances, only eight teams will still be in the hunt for the state crown.
“Much like the Olympics, you win three and you win it all,” said LeRose. “Similarly, you lose one and you’re out, so there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the Olympics. You’ve got to keep it simple and take it one game at a time.”
Aspen wrapped up its regular-season schedule with a 4-0 win over Regis last Wednesday. However, 18 of 28 players on the AHS roster, who also play with the Aspen Midget AA club team, claimed the title at the 17th Annual Littleton President’s Day Tournament this past weekend.
The Aspen Midget AAs started sluggishly, with ties against La Jolla, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla. In Aspen’s third game against Ventura, Calif., the Ventura coach pulled his team off the ice when Aspen was leading 4-1 with a few minutes remaining in the second period.
“Earlier, Ventura beat Vail 5-2 and they did it by being physical,” LeRose said. “We knew that going into the game and we were determined to be more physical, but not retaliatory. So by the end of the second period, we had seven power plays to their three, with two goals coming from it. The Ventura coach felt the ref was biased, and that they didn’t have an opportunity to win, so they just walked off the ice.”
Aspen earned the win by forfeit.
In Aspen’s fourth game of the tourney against Arvada, Aspen won 3-2 to advance to the final four as the No. 3 seed.
Facing No. 2 Fort Collins in the semifinals, Aspen won 6-4 to advance to the finals against Tulsa. “The good news about the Fort Collins game is that they’re ranked No. 3 in the state in Midget AA, so that was a really good win,” LeRose said. “The team gained a lot of confidence in that game.”
Tulsa, the team Aspen tied 3-3 in an earlier game at the tourney, couldn’t stand up to Aspen in the finals as Aspen skated to a 6-1 lead in the third period, eventually winning 6-2.
LeRose, the head coach of the AHS team and coaching director for Aspen Junior Hockey, credited the Midget AA coaches, Jon Thompson and Mark Cornish, for guiding the team through to the title. Because of high school rules, LeRose, as a high school coach, wasn’t allowed to coach the team on Sunday.
Stuart Barwick, the top goalie for the Midget AAs and the AHS team, suffered an ankle injury during the tourney and played only one game. However, Jesse Amory, the backup for AHS and the AAs, stepped up and recorded wins in the five other games. “He played very well, and that’s good to see,” LeRose said.
“And as far as scoring, it was really balanced,” LeRose said, “coming from all the lines. It was a total team effort.”
In the high school state playoffs, Vail’s Battle Mountain (13-1-2) is the No. 2 seed, followed by No. 3 Air Academy, No. 4 Machebeuf and No. 5 Kent Denver. During the regular season, Aspen beat all the top seeds except for No. 5 Kent Denver.
“Coming off winning the President’s Day Tourney, our team is confident and I think we’re peaking at the right time,” LeRose said, “but we still have a few minor issues that we’ll address in practice this week. You don’t want to be overconfident – the key is not looking past the opponent at hand – but you want to have confidence too. And we’re feeling pretty good about how we’re playing. Especially with the balanced scoring, that will be key against some of the teams that don’t have the depth that we have.”
The semifinals of the state playoffs are scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 26, followed by the finals on Thursday, Feb. 28. All the final-four games will be held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
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