Aspen hockey enters final four
Aspen Times Staff Writer
With a shutout victory over Palmer in the quarterfinals Saturday in Colorado Springs, the Aspen High hockey team advanced to the final four of the Colorado High School Hockey League state playoffs.
Aspen, the No. 1 seed in the 12-team playoffs, now faces No. 6 Cheyenne Mountain in the semifinals at 6:05 p.m. Tuesday at Air Force Academy.
Riding a newfound luck on the power play and the hot glove of junior goalie Jesse Amory, Aspen overcame nerves in a shaky first period against No. 10 Palmer to earn the return trip to the final four. Last February, AHS lost the state title in sudden-death overtime to Liberty.
On the other side of the semifinal bracket, No. 2 Battle Mountain of Vail faces No. 5 Kent Denver. That game is scheduled for 8:05 p.m. Tuesday, also at Air Force Academy, the site of Thursday’s championship game.
During the regular season, Aspen, now 15-2 on the season, beat two of the three final-four teams, Cheyenne Mountain and Battle Mountain, both at home at the Aspen Ice Garden. On the road, however, at Kent Denver, Aspen lost 6-4.
“The thing I like about this team is that we’re getting balanced scoring,” said Aspen coach Mark LeRose. “Goals are being scored by our first and second power-play units, by defensemen and forwards, and we tightened up defensively. We didn’t give Palmer a lot of scoring chances. We kept them to the perimeter.”
In the first period against Palmer on Saturday, Aspen “outplayed ’em and outshot ’em,” LeRose said, but finished the period in a 0-0 tie.
“The guys were definitely nervous. They had butterflies in the first,” he said.
In the second period, Aspen quickly converted two power-play goals. Senior Ry Neiley scored the first, assisted by seniors Sean Friedland and James Ibbotson. Junior Matt Young twined the second, assisted by junior Peter MacKellar.
“They took a lot of penalties,” the coach said. “They had a small bench and they only played two lines – while we basically played three lines – and it’s been the same story all season. We just kept coming at them and we wore them down.”
Aspen converted 3-of-8 power plays, while Palmer was 0-of-3, and Aspen outshot Palmer 30 to 10.
Junior goalie Amory stopped everything.
“He’s been playing extremely well. He won the Midget AA tournament for us the week before, and games when you only see ten shots are tough,” LeRose said. “He made one tremendous save midway through the second. It was timely too because it was 2-0 at that point, and they had a great scoring chance. A kid releases a quick wrist shot going upper corner and Jesse stabbed it.”
Junior Joey Carlson sealed the victory with one minute left in the third period, another power-play goal assisted by seniors Matt Stege and Eric Strauss.
Entering tomorrow’s semifinals, LeRose said his most difficult decision is one of goalies. Senior Stuart Barwick, who nearly guided Aspen to the state title last season, is now healthy following an ankle injury.
“I have two No. 1 goalies,” he said. “I’m in a difficult position, albeit enviable, so I have to make some tough decisions about who will get the start. But it’s a good problem to have.”
While Aspen beat Cheyenne Mt. 4-1 on Jan. 26, LeRose said the shots were even.
“They’re definitely a worthy opponent and we’re going to have to be at the top of our game,” he said. “There are only quality teams left and each team has very good players, and their best players are playing their best hockey. And that’s what I need out of my guys.”
The Aspen team planned to travel to Colorado Springs after school today.
“We cannot afford to play jittery hockey against any opponent at this point. We recognize that we have to control our nerves for sure,” LeRose said. “But we’re focused on our mission of ‘3W’ and we’ve only taken one step.”
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