Breck Bucks lose Final Four heartbreaker to Aspen
Special to the Daily
Thursday, March 3
Breck Bucks vs. Aspen Leafs
Score 1st 2nd 3rd OT Final
Bucks 4 2 0 0 6
Leafs 1 0 5 1 7
Almost, but not quite.
The Final Four of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League follows a format similar to that of the NCAA: win and move on, lose and you’re done … just like that.
The postseason games were played March 3-4 at the U.S. Air Force Academy fieldhouse arena, where the Air Force Falcons NCAA Division One team plays. The format pitted the No. 3 Breckenridge Bucks against the No. 2 Aspen Leafs in one semifinal, and the No. 1 Pikes Peak Miners against the No. 4 Colorado Rampage in the other semifinal.
The Miners and Rampage game was a grudge match, with regional foes battling for the first spot in the final. The Miners came out strong and scored four first-period goals. They would let the Rampage come back in the second period but eventually overpowered them, winning 9-5 to avoid the upset.
The Bucks faced the mountain-town rivals the Aspen Leafs in the second game. The season series between the Bucks and Leafs had been more-or-less a one-sided affair, as the Leafs had won all but two games against the Bucks, including a split series in the opening weekend of the season.
However, the most recent games were closer affairs, with the Bucks keeping it tight with the Leafs. This was a winner-take-all game that put everything on the line, including bragging rights for the next six months. It didn’t matter what happened previously in the season — all that mattered to both teams was this game.
The Leafs kicked off the scoring, as Russian Viachslav Goev scored just past the five-minute mark in the first period.
After that, the Bucks came to life, and it was truly evidenced that they wanted the game more. Bucks leading goal scorer, forward Jake Wener, found the net on the power play to bring the Bucks to life, banging home a rebound past the Leafs goaltender. Less than 30 seconds later, Joey Lajcaj blasted home a shot to put the Bucks up 2-1.
The Bucks were only beginning to roll. Late-season acquisition Drake Cole scored twice in the final five minutes of the first frame to extend the Bucks lead to 4-1.
“We were winning every race to every loose puck,” Wener said. “Everything was going well.”
The Bucks continued their dominance in the second stanza, as they once again scored at the two-minute mark. Ben Barron dug a puck out of the corner on a hard fore-check and kicked it up the boards to captain Seamus Stoyle, who threw it in front of Wener’s waiting stick for his second goal of the evening.
The Bucks continued to roll through the period in dominating fashion, as Cole completed what had become a routine scoring event for the new star: his third hat-trick in as many weekends. It propelled the Bucks to a commanding 6-1 lead going into the third period.
“We were absolutely throttling them,” assistant coach Kory Dekoevend remarked. “We wanted it more through the first two periods and it really showed. Then, we put it on autopilot.”
Autopilot in the third
Autopilot, much like cruise control, is an aphorism for taking a situation that seems to be well in hand, then basically turning it over to the fates at be while trying to coast through to the foregone conclusion. In short, the Bucks played the third period not to lose, rather than playing it to win.
Bad things happen in a game as quick as hockey when you hit autopilot — especially against a team known for its ability to score goals in bunches.
Junior hockey, by nature, is high scoring. The players are 16 and 20 years old and have untold amounts of energy. The goaltenders can act like professionals at moments and then at other moments can be fooled by a routine shot. This compounds the uncertainty of any game.
These factors dictate one thing: Absolutely no lead is safe in junior hockey.
The Bucks learned a very real and painful lesson, as little by little they allowed the Leafs to creep back into the game. In the first two periods, the Bucks controlled the momentum and the pace of the game. In the third, it was exactly the opposite.
“We were great in the first two. We didn’t make mistakes or turn the puck over,” head coach Jesse Davis commented. “We didn’t turn it over in the third either, because we never had the puck.”
Little by little the Leafs clawed their way back, scoring two goals in the first five minutes to make the game a manageable 6-3. Aspen struck again eight minutes in, as Goev scored his second goal of the contest to bring the game to 6-4.
There is another old saying in hockey: A two-goal lead is the worst lead in the game. Allow one goal and the trailing team has all the momentum — and a total advantage.
Hayden Knight would score that goal for the Leafs to make it 6-5 with six minutes to go. It was all the Bucks could do to hang on to the lead. The Bucks clung to dear life, but the Leafs pulled the goalie and scored the equalizing goal with less than 30 seconds to go, tying the game at six to force overtime in the most improbable of fashions.
The Leafs would complete a comeback of epic proportions on a huge stage in overtime, as they caught the Bucks on a bad line change and sprung forward Taylor Knight for a breakaway. Bucks goalie Oliver Elvenger made the initial save, but Knight was able to get to the rebound and chip it by him to give the Leafs the 7-6 victory.
The Leafs went on to defeat the Miners 4-3 in the championship game and took home the trophy for the inaugural season of the RMJHL.
The Bucks finished a disappointing third after coming just one period (more like 30 seconds) away from playing for the championship. The Bucks finished 26-14 on the season — not a bad marque for the first season of the new league. Looking ahead, the Bucks aim to build on their first season and move into the 2016-17 season with new, fresh momentum.
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