Down early, Aspen High hockey rallies back to beat Liberty in playoff opener
AHS will play No. 1 Cheyenne Mountain in Monday’s state quarterfinal
Starting slow is nothing new for the Aspen High School hockey team. Neither is finishing strong, which is how the Skiers were able to rally for a 4-2 win over visiting Liberty on Thursday night in the opening round of the Class 4A state tournament, played at Lewis Ice Arena in Aspen.
“Our team is pretty good with resilience. We’ve come out slow — it’s kind of a tendency,” AHS senior goalie Zach Small said. “But we manage to build back a lot and I think that’s one of our strengths is when we can let in a quick goal and it’s not going to stop us. We are going to keep playing our game.”
Thursday’s contest was one of two play-in games in the 10-team tournament, with No. 8 seed Aspen (8-10-1 overall) advancing to play top-seeded Cheyenne Mountain on Monday in the quarterfinals. No. 9 seed Liberty finished its season at 9-10-1 overall.
Aspen trailed Liberty 1-0 only four minutes into Thursday’s game behind a goal by Tristan Ward, but from there it was a relatively dominant performance from the Skiers, who outshot the Lancers 51-27 for the game.
“We started out a little shaky. Everyone had a little bit of nerves — big playoff game,” AHS coach Keith Howie said. “But we came around and started to play our game. We started to dominate them and I was really happy with the way we played.”
Down a goal, Aspen finally found the back of the net just past the 13-minute mark of the first period on a power-play goal by Brady Haisfield. Only two minutes later, before the period could end, Ryan Rigney scored on a power play to give AHS a 2-1 lead. Rigney later took a puck to the chin while sitting on the team’s bench, but walked away from the incident mostly unharmed.
The 2-1 advantage held into the third period despite numerous chances for the Skiers to add to their lead. The AHS defense also overcame a brief 5-on-3 in favor of the Lancers late in the second period.
“It’s a little frustrating when you have so many chances and you don’t put it in the net,” Howie said. “But everyone, our coaching staff, was telling everyone, ‘Keep working, keep working, keep doing what we are doing, and the goals will come.’”
The Skiers finally put the game away late in the third period. Carson Miller’s goal with less than eight minutes remaining made it 3-1, and about three minutes later Nic Pevny scored to make it 4-1.
Jeremy Garcia scored a short-handed goal in the final minute for Liberty that ultimately meant nothing in regard to the outcome.
“We were really playing the game we want to play, and that’s getting the puck deep, getting good pressure on them, making their ‘D’ work, and really playing a team game,” Howie said. “Early in the game we saw they are really a two-line team, and we are really a three-line team, so we could really tire out their ‘D,’ get it deep and really put pressure on them so by the second period those guys are worn out.”
Small was especially appreciative of the AHS student section, which came out in full force and wasn’t required to wear masks after Pitkin County’s mask mandate was dropped earlier in the week. On the heels of the AHS boys basketball team’s home district playoff win on Tuesday, Small said the student body has the most energy it’s had since the pandemic began.
“It’s kind of bringing back a lot of the school spirit that I think was missing for a couple of years,” Small said. “We are starting to have some fun again.”
The next task will be a rematch against No. 1 Cheyenne Mountain (17-2), which beat Aspen 4-3 on Dec. 6 in what was the Skiers’ first game of the regular season. That had been the Hawks’ third game and it came down to the wire, something that has the Skiers feeling confident they can skate with the top seed again.
Photos: AHS hockey vs. Liberty
“We played them close the first game. They are a solid team. Every single play they make is crisp and clean,” Small said. “Any mistake we make they are going to capitalize, so it’s how consistently clean can we play? If we come out and play a clean game and eliminate all the little mistakes, it’s going to be a close game. It’s going to be a battle all the way through.”
Monday’s quarterfinal with Cheyenne Mountain will start at 2:45 p.m. at the Sertich Ice Center in Colorado Springs.
“We played well against them, considering it was our first game. They are a much better team since the beginning of the season, but we are a much better team, too,” Howie said. “Eventually you are going to meet No. 1 or 2 in the playoffs somewhere, and we are just going to meet them a round or two earlier. I think it’s easier being the underdog because you are not expected to win.”
In the other 4A play-in game on Thursday, No. 10 Crested Butte beat No. 7 Rampart, 5-2, and will advance to play No. 2 Battle Mountain in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
The other quarterfinal games are No. 4 Steamboat Springs vs. No. 5 Summit on Friday, and No. 3 Colorado Academy vs. No. 6 Kent Denver on Monday.
The long drives to Denver to play competitive club softball and fine-tune her skills during the offseason are paying off for Glenwood Springs High School senior Kiera Larson.