It's the rubber match, and a lot more than local bragging rights are on the line.
Tonight at the Olympic Center's 1932 Rink, rivals Saranac Lake and Lake Placid will clash for the third time this season as they face off in the Section VII hockey semifinals. The teams split during the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference campaign, each triumphing on home ice with the Blue Bombers' victory being their first over the Red Storm in six years.
Tonight's winner will move on to play for the Section VII title Monday at SUNY Plattsburgh, while the losing team will be done for the season. Saranac Lake is the defending Section VII champion and heads into the game as the third seed with an 11-7-1 record. Meanwhile, the Blue Bombers have had one of their best seasons in recent years, posting a 14-5-1 record overall.
Lake Placid senior Dustin Jacques leads the Blue Bombers in scoring.
Lou Reuter/Lake Placid News
The teams finished tied for second place in the CVAC, with identical 6-3-1 records. Lake Placid can thank a coin toss for earning the second seed, a first-round bye and the right to host Saranac Lake tonight on home ice.
"Playing at home is an advantage to some degree, but I wouldn't overestimate that advantage," said Lake Placid coach Keith Clark, whose team lost its final regular season game of the season eight days ago. "Saranac Lake is playing some pretty good hockey right now. We've had a good year, but we didn't play as well as we would have liked down the stretch.
"But we are where we want to be," Clark added. "The kids are excited being one game away from the finals and a chance for a championship."
The Blue Bombers are captained by senior Dustin Jacques, who led the team in scoring with 12 goals, 19 assists and 31 points. Right behind Jacques is a dangerous scoring threat in junior Eddie Kane, who had 23 goals and seven assists during the regular season. Kane buried four pucks against Saranac Lake the last time the teams met up, which was an 8-4 win by the Blue Bombers.
R.J. Reid and Nzoni Thompson are tied for fourth in scoring for Lake Placid, each netting five goals and 12 assists.
Just a freshman, Jeff Smith has had a strong season in goal for Lake Placid and heads into tonight's matchup after posting two shutouts this winter and making 265 saves.
The Blue Bombers will also have sophomore forward Dillon Savage back in the lineup tonight. He has not played since suffering a shoulder injury when Saranac Lake and Lake Placid last met up on Feb. 3.
Clark said the key to success for his team will be playing smart hockey.
"We want to play an up-tempo game and make sure we take care of the puck," Clark said. "We cannot turn the puck over in critical areas of the rink, and we have to play real disciplined hockey. We've done a pretty good job at that so far. This season, we've played pretty consistent hockey."
Saranac Lake brings a six-game winning streak into the contest, including a 6-0 shutout at home Tuesday over Saranac Central in a quarterfinal matchup. The Red Storm also feature the top scorer in the league in senior forward Devin Darrah, who posted a whopping 60 points in 19 games, scoring 32 goals and adding 28 assists. Junior Matt Phelan was second in scoring for the Red Storm with 12 goals and 17 assists, and joins Darrah on the team's first line along with sophomore center David Cluckey.
Second liner Grant Strack is currently third in scoring for Saranac Lake with 19 goals and seven assists and will be joined by Quinn Urquhart and Chris Spicer. Another threat for the Red Storm is senior captain and defenseman Kyle Dora, who missed eight games during the middle of the season with pneumonia. Dora enters tonight's tilt with seven goals and 12 assists.
The Red Storm's third forward line is comprised of center Blake Battistoni, right wing Shawn Wilcox and left wing Nick Bayruns.
Sophomore goalie Blake Darrah anchors the Red Storm defense in the net.
Ellsworth said staying relaxed has been a key for Saranac Lake during its recent winning streak. He said it's important his players continue in that mode.
"Hockey is a superstitious game, we've had a routine that's been working for us," Ellsworth said. "We don't want to break from that routine. We've been playing consistent hockey, we've had a relaxed mentality, and we want to keep it that way. In the playoffs, kids can tend to get nervous, and that's when you can get away from the game plan."
On paper, tonight's game appears like it could go either way. But there is one thing for certain: whenever Saranac Lake and Lake Placid meet up, it's always a battle.
"We're excited to be hosting this game," Clark said. "I'm sure it's going to be an electric atmosphere."
"This is a good old-fashioned grudge match between the two local hockey talents," Ellsworth said. "I think our kids have a bitter taste in their mouths after the last time we played them. It's the first time they beat us in six years. Hopefully, we can come out on top this time."
The opening faceoff for tonight's game at the Olympic Center's 1932 Rink is slated for 6:30 p.m. The winner of tonight's matchup will play the winner of the Beekmantown-Plattsburgh game, which will also be played tonight.