The Saratoga Springs hockey team and senior center Cody Nizolek both took home souvenirs from Saturday’s New York state Division I regional playoff game.
The Blue Streaks had the regional championship trophy; Nizolek had a big gash in his chin.
The gash was no big deal; the win was.
Nizolek scored two goals, both on rebounds, as the Blue Streaks secured a spot in next weekend’s Division I final four with a 3-1 victory over Section V champion Ithaca at The Rink.
Saratoga, 18-4-1, will face either Monroe-Woodbury (Section IX) or Pittsford (Section V) at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. The Blue Streaks will be going back to the state semifinals for the first time since 2000.
“We know we’re a high-scoring team, and we knew we just had to keep pressure on them,” said Nizolek, who scored his 14th and 15th goals of the season, and then shrugged off the gash on his chin. “One of their guys came up into me. It gave me a little more motivation.”
The Streaks didn’t need additional motivation because they had a great game plan.
“We knew that they play solid defense, and we knew they like to block a lot of shots,” said Streaks second-year coach Mike Ricupero of the Little Red. “So we knew we had to use our defensemen on the points.”
Ithaca (11-7-3) is the only team in Section IV that plays hockey, and its regular season ended on Feb. 9. Their rustiness showed in the first couple of minutes, when the rink seemed to be tilted toward the Little Red goal.
It only took the Streaks 2:16 to get on the board, as sophomore defenseman Mike Layman, who had three goals during the regular season, put a shot from the left point through a screen and past Ithaca goalie Cooper Belyea.
Nizolek scored what proved to be the game-winner with two minutes left in the period, when he scored on his own rebound after taking a shot from the right faceoff circle.
“After I shot, their goalie just kind of stood there, so I went in and whacked away at it,” Nizolek said.
Penalties got the Streaks in trouble late in the first period and early in the second. After killing off four straight penalties, including 47 seconds of a five-on-three, the Streaks finally fell victim to the Little Red pressure, when Ithaca junior Austin Romantic swept a loose puck past Saratoga senior goalie Graeme Bulmer at 2:44 of the second period, just after a Saratoga penalty had expired to cut the Streaks’ lead in half.
That brought the Ithaca crowd to life, but they were quickly silenced, when Nizolek knocked in another rebound at 5:33 after Belyea failed to get control of a shot from the point by junior defenseman Jimmy Murray.
Rather than sit on the lead, the Streaks kept pressing in the third period, outshooting the Little Red, 14-5, to keep the momentum in their favor. They finished with a 38-19 advantage in shots on goal.
“You see it in the NFL, when they sit back and give up something big,” said Ricupero. “I didn’t want to do that. We didn’t lock it up until about four minutes left.
“This is the best game we’ve played all year, top to bottom, from offense to defense to goaltending. I think that goal we got early kind of took them out of it.”
Bulmer, who is still bothered somewhat by a knee injury, finished with 18 saves and gave up just one goal for his third straight playoff game.
“He’s coming off a knee injury, and he may have tweaked it again, and Cody had a gash on his chin, but he played through it; the adrenalin took over. Nothing could stop us today,” said Ricupero. “It’s good to have Saratoga back on the hockey map, and back in the state picture again.”
Saratoga Springs 2 1 0 — 3
Ithaca 0 1 0 — 1
First period — 1, Sar, Layman (Cash, Grant), 2:13. 2, Sar, Nizolek (Cash), 13:00.
Second period — 3, Ith, Romantic (Mendola), 2:44. 4, Sar, Nizolek (Murray), 5:33.
Third period — None.
Shots on goal — Saratoga Springs, 11-13-14 — 38; Ithaca, 6-8-5 — 19.
Power-play opportunites — Saratoga Springs, 0 of 4, Ithaca 0 of 5.
Goalies — Saratoga Springs, Bulmer, 19-18. Ithaca, Belyea, 38-35.