SARANAC LAKE - For the first time in six years, Saranac Lake's hockey team finds itself in the state playoff round after claiming a 3-2 upset victory over Beekmantown in a thrilling Section VII championship game on Tuesday.
The Red Storm are hoping their next matchup will be just as exciting, as they take on New York's second-ranked Division II team - the Queensbury Spartans. The state quarterfinal game will be held Saturday on the Spartans home ice at the Lake George Forum, with the opening faceoff scheduled for 6 p.m.
The Red Storm were the underdogs against the Eagles, and they are clearly in the same position again, but coach Will Ellsworth said his players will be hitting the ice with enthusiasm against a squad that has played dominating hockey while posting a 17-2-2 record overall.
Saranac Lake’s three first-team all Section VII selections are pictured defending the Red Storm net during Tuesday’s championship game against Beekmantown in Lake Placid. Saranac Lake players from the left are forward Devin Darrah, goalie Tyler O’Neil and defenseman Kyle Dora. Also pictured is Beekmantown’s Nathan Foster.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"It already has been a magical season for us, especially after we lost key guys with injuries," Ellsworth said. "I'm still on a high from that win over Beekmantown, but there's still more hockey ahead of us. Like we've been saying all along, our guys aren't ready to pack it in yet."
The Section II champion Queensbury Spartans have four players in the top seven in the scoring standings of the Capital District High School Hockey League, including a duo of league leaders.
Senior forward and captain Kevin Valenti leads Queensbury into action after he topped the CDHSHL scoring standings and was named that league's player of the year. He steps on the ice Saturday with 29 goals, 31 assists and 60 points. Senior Brian Frederick was second in scoring in both the league and for Queensbury with 16 goals and 24 assists. Junior John Countryman was sixth in the league with 21 goals and 11 assists, and teammate and senior defenseman Taylor Cooke was seventh, notching five goals and 26 assists.
The Saranac Lake athletic department has advance tickets for Saturday's game on sale at $6 apiece. There is limited seating at the Lake George Forum. For tickets or more information, call Mark Farmer at 897-1425.
Another senior on the team who has had an outstanding year is goalie Dylan Hafner. He has anchored a Spartan defense that has given up just 28 goals in 21 games played. Hafner has played 748 minutes and compiled a 14-2 record while allowing an average of 1.69 goals per game and recording a .918 save percentage. Junior Robert Orban is Queensbury's backup goaltender who has not been scored on in 168 minutes played. He is 2-0-1 in goal for the Spartans.
Three first-team all Section VII picks lead Saranac Lake into Saturday's game. Junior forward Devin Darrah topped the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference in scoring with 27 goals and 18 assists for 45 points. Saranac Lake's other two first-team selections are Kyle Dora, a junior defenseman who has eight goals and 12 assists, and senior goalie Tyler O'Neil, who has a 10-3-2 record in goal this season.
Sophomore Matt Phelan is the only other goal scorer in double figures for Saranac Lake with 12 goals and nine assists for 21 points. He notched the game-winning goal with less than three minutes to play in the Section VII final against Beekmantown.
Darrah and Phelan have been joined on the Red Storm's first line by senior Dalton DeMarco, who has five goals and eight assists. Senior defenseman and team captain Patrick McHugh also has four goals and 12 assists for Saranac Lake.
Ellsworth, whose team owns a 15-5-2 record, said a key to keeping up with Queensbury is to force their speedy players to the outside.
"You have to change the forecheck around because these guys are very explosive," Ellsworth said. "We've been tweaking things a little in practice to prepare for Queensbury. We are playing on an Olympic-size ice sheet, and we will be keeping our third forward up high on the forecheck. Essentially, he's going to be a third defenseman out there.
"We know these guys are good, but I don't think our guys are intimidated," Ellsworth added. "It's playoff hockey and anything can happen. We've had two great practices over the two past days, we have one more run-through coming up before the game, and our kids are really excited. This is a fun time of year for hockey."