Saratoga Springs coach Mike Ricupero needs an entire hand when he counts all the things the Blue Streaks have going for them heading into tonight’s Section II Division I championship game.
No. 1 seeding, 11-game unbeaten streak, balanced scoring, solid defense, veteran goaltending.
But the one thing that he thinks could derail the Streaks in their matchup with defending sectional champion Shaker/Colonie (No. 3 seed, 14-6-2) at 6:30 at Messa Rink on the campus of Union College is the lack of big-game experience.
“We’re going in as the No. 1 seed, but I still think we’re the underdog,” said Ricupero. “Shaker has a big group of seniors who have been in this situation before. My guys have been in big games, but they’ve never been in a situation like this.”
Shaker/Colonie’s experience was a big factor in the Jets’ 3-0 victory in the semifinals against Shenenedowa, prompting Plainsmen coach Juan de la Rocha to say “. . . they played like 11 seniors tonight.” when he assessed the Jets’ performance.
But there’s no question that the Blue Streaks have momentum on their side. They haven’t lost since dropping a 4-3 decision to Shenendehowa on Dec. 23, and after a shaky 2-3 start, come into the championship game with a 16-4-1 record, which includes a 3-1 victory over the Jets on Jan. 9.
The Streaks advanced to the championship game with a nail-biting 2-1 victory over LaSalle after getting a bye in the first round.
“In the LaSalle game, I think the week off hurt us a little bit, as far as game speed goes,” said Ricupero.
Saratoga has one of the most balanced offenses in the area. Senior Stephen Cash is the leading scorer with 32 points (20-12), but Garrison Grant (13-12-25), Alex Luse (12-11-23), Tristan Sperry (12-11-23) and Cody Nizolek, last year’s Capital District High School Hockey League Player of the Year (13-10-23) and an all-CDHSHL pick this year, are all stacked up behind him.
And to show just how balanced the Streaks are, sophomore Jamie Bartoszek scored one of the two goals against LaSalle, after scoring just two goals during the regular season.
“We don’t have one kid who dominates,” said Ricupero. “We’ve had a consistent lineup all year.”
The one dominant player is in goal. Senior Graeme Bulmer finished the year with a .905 save percentage and a 2.03 goals-against average, putting him near the top of the league’s goaltenders.
But the Jets counter with Jim Lanne, who hasn’t given up a goal in two playoff games, blanking Christian Brothers Academy and Shenendehowa.
“Again, Jim was in this situation last year,” said Ricupero. “He knows what to expect. Graeme has played in big games, against the West Genessees and the Sufferns, so he knows how we need him to perform.”
Senior Ryan Phillips scored his team-leading 29th goal of the year for the Jets in the semifinals, and Brian Seniw had the other two, giving him three of Shaker/Colonie’s seven goals in the tournament.
Senior Corey Brustle, the Jets’ leading scorer (19-27-46), has had just one assist in two playoff games.
“He’s been sick, and hasn’t been 100 percent for over a week,” said Jets coach Steve Hudak. “But the other thing is, teams are playing their best defensive pairings against that line.”
The Streaks are trying to win their first sectional championship since 2000. From 1992 to 2000, the Streaks won six Section II titles. They also reached the New York state semifinals five times in that span, bringing home the state championship in 1999.
“We haven’t been in this situation in 10 years,” said Ricupero. “This is really a chance for us to put Saratoga back in the map.”
But Ricupero and the Streaks know there are no guarantees, even coming in as the No. 1 seed.
“This happened to us last year,” Ricupero said. “We got off to a good start and were ranked eighth in the state, like we are now, Then we hit a couple of bumps in the road that we couldn’t overcome, and we lost to Niskayuna/Schenectady in overtime in the sectionals.
“That’s still in the back on the minds of the kids who were here last year. We can’t go in thinking we just have to show up to win. We have to put it all out on the ice.”