It’s easy to establish a game plan to shut down Shaker/Colonie’s offense.
Executing that game plan is an entirely different matter.
The Jets, who roll out one of the most dominant lines in the Capital District High School Hockey League, will be trying to win their first Section II Division I title since 2002 when they face Niskayuna/Schenectady at 7 tonight at Messa Rink at Union College.
Shaker/Colonie’s offense is triggered by its top line of senior Matthew Vetrone and juniors Ryan Phillips and Corey Brustle. Vetrone is the leading scorer with 39 points (17-22), Brustle has 34 (16-18) and Phillips has 31 (19-12). Brustle had two goals and an assist, and Vetrone had a goal and two assists for the top-seeded Jets in a 3-1 victory over Guilderland in the semifinals.
“I put them together around the fourth or fifth game of the season, after we lost to CBA,” said Steve Hudak, in his third season behind the Jets’ bench. “I kind of knew they would wind up together, but I didn’t want them to know they were going to be the top line right from the start.”
The Jets come into the championship game with an 18-4-1 record, which is quite an accomplishment for a team that features 13 juniors, and finished second-to-last in Division I last season.
“I really thought we were a year away,” said Hudak. “I thought next year would be our year. The big difference is we have a few seniors who are major leaders and who brought the team together. It’s amazing what leadership can do.
“Joe [Mirabile], who is my assistant coach, and I don’t work at the school, so we’re usually running from work to get to practice, and sometimes, we get there five minutes before we’re supposed to start. But the captains [Vetrone and Travis Cardinell] have everything set up and ready to go.”
Cardinell is one of the seniors who has had to take a back seat to some of the juniors on the team. He’s the fourth-leading scorer, with four goals and 12 assists.
“Travis doesn’t get noticed because he’s a second-line player,” said Hudak. “But he knows he has a certain role, and he goes with it and accepts it. I never realized what a difference that kind of leadership makes.”
Niskayuna/Schenectady (9-15-2), the No. 7 seed, is trying to win its first Division I championship since 1994, and the Mohawks are playing with an underdog mentality that scares opposing coaches.
“I’m a pessimist, by nature, and I always expect the worst,” said Hudak. “When you’re going into a fight, you can’t underestimate your opponent. When we got on the ice at 5:30 Monday morning for practice, that’s all I talked about. Niskayuna/Schenectady is at the top of its game, right now, and if we aren’t on top of ours Thursday, we’re going to be in trouble.”
No one on the Mohawks’ roster is hotter than senior Mike Tenenboym. He scored the game-winning goal in the third overtime to beat CBA, 5-4, in the opening round, and scored the game-winner, again in overtime, as the Mohawks eliminated Saratoga Springs, 2-1, in the semifinals.
Prior to the victory over CBA, the Mohawks hadn’t won a playoff game since 2001.
All-CDHSHL defenseman Mike Casey spearheads the Mohawks’ defense, and will be one of the keys to stopping the Jets’ big line, as will senior goalie Ben Phillips. Phillips, a converted defenseman, moved into the nets for the first time this season, and had a big game in the semifinals against the Blue Streaks, stopping 25 shots, negating Saratoga’s 26-11 advantage in shots on goal.
Although the Jets are the No. 1 seed and defeated Niskayuna/Schenectady, 6-0, in the only meeting of the two teams in the regular season, Hudak knows the Mohawks aren’t going to roll over.
“We finished second-to-last last year, and were about the same the year before,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re definitely hungry to win the title. But I don’t feel like we deserve anything. We’ve got to go out and earn it.”
The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the regionals, to be played March 7.