SARANAC LAKE - Saranac Lake's hockey team made the most its last chance to play on home ice this season, blanking Northeastern Clinton 3-0 in Tuesday's Section VII quarterfinal game at the Civic Center.
The Red Storm earned the home playoff game when they forged a 1-1 tie with the Champlain Valley Athletic Conference champion Beekmantown Saturday on the final day of the regular season. In that game, Grant Strack came through with the only goal Saranac Lake needed, and he came up big again against the Cougars.
Strack netted all three goals for Saranac Lake, which is one step closer toward earning a third-straight Section VII title. The Red Storm's senior captain found the back of the net twice in the first period and completed the first playoff hat trick of his high school career with a goal midway through the third stanza.
Saranac Lake’s Grant Strack puts a hit on Brady Vasser of Northeastern Clinton during the third period of Tuesday’s game in Saranac Lake.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
"Getting the hat trick is a nice bonus, but really, I'm just trying to do anything I can to help our team get the 'W,'" said Strack, who now has 22 goals this season. "Right now, we're playing hard and hoping to go on another one of those magical runs."
Junior goalie Blake Darrah also had a standout effort for Saranac Lake by making 22 saves to earn the shutout. Ten of those stops came in the opening period.
"Their goalie had a tremendous game," Cougars head coach Rob Francis said. "We had our opportunities, we had our chances, we just couldn't finish. This is a tough building to win in when you are the road team."
Strack scored his first goal 5:23 into the game and pushed Saranac Lake's lead to 2-0 with his second tally at the 7:48 mark. His third goal came at the 7:55 mark of the third period to seal the win for the fourth-seeded Red Storm, who improved to 7-8-5 overall.
"We got a nice start with those two early goals, and then we were able to maintain," Saranac Lake head coach Will Ellsworth said. "We are playing pretty smart hockey. We're getting the puck out of our zone, we're making passes and we're taking shots."
A rash of injuries coupled with starting the season with little depth, Saranac Lake has been forced to play with a short bench. But lately, the Red Storm has been able to take the top teams in the league down to the wire.
"We're just keeping things simple and everyone is doing their job," Ellsworth said. "We've shifted players all over the place, but during the past three weeks or so, I think we've really found the right line combinations. Our first line of Strack, Christian Thomas and (Chris Spicer), has really come through for us. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Thomas, an eighth-grader, finished with two assists for Saranac Lake and Spicer added an assist. Defenseman Blake Battistoni also chipped in one assist for the Red Storm, setting up Strack's third goal.
The Cougars finished their season with a 7-10-1 overall mark.
"It's always disappointing when you end your season with a loss," Francis said. "Our kids were hoping to be back on the ice tomorrow preparing to play another game. Overall, we had a successful season. I'm really happy with our guys. They came to the rink every day ready to work."
With the win, Saranac Lake will now face top-seed Beekmantown in a Section VII semifinal game Thursday at the Ameri-Can North Sports Center in Plattsburgh. The opening faceoff is slated for 7 p.m.
"We know we can skate with those guys," Strack said. "We proved that last week."
Saranac Lake 3, Northeastern Clinton 0
1. SL, Strack (Thomas, Spicer), 5:23; 2. SL, Strack (Thomas), 7:48.
3. SL, Strack (Battistoni), 7:55.
Shots on goal: Saranac Lake 25, NCCS 22
Saves: SL, Darrah 22; NCCS, Young 22.