Bombers bound for Buffalo

LAKE PLACID – To say it’s been an exciting week for the Lake Placid boys hockey team could definitely be considered an understatement. But what the Blue Bombers really want to do is turn a thrilling week into a very successful one.

The Blue Bombers will take their first step toward that goal Saturday when they take on Kenmore East in the semifinal round of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Ice Hockey Championships at the Harbor Center in Buffalo. And if they can get past the Bulldogs, they’ll advance to the state championship game on Sunday.

This marks the second year in a row Lake Placid has reached the Division II final four. The Blue Bombers earned the trip with a 2-1 overtime victory over Queensbury in a regional playoff game last Saturday, and now they’re looking to clear a hurdle they couldn’t get over a year ago when they fell 3-2 to Williamsville East in semifinal play.

Lake Placid will have its hands full with Kenmore East, the Section VI champion, but if things play out the way they did a year ago when the final four tournament was held in Utica, any four of the teams that are still in the hunt have a shot at a state title.

“The way I look at it, everybody is beatable. There isn’t one team that’s totally, totally dominant,” said head coach Butch Martin, whose Blue Bombers bring an 18-4-1 record into the weekend. “We’ve had 70 practices, we’ve played 23 games. We’ve been pretty successful and we’re not going to change a thing. I wouldn’t say our guys are overly confident, but they are determined. They aren’t going to let anybody push them around.”

Lake Placid moved up from seventh to fourth in the New York State Sportswriters Association rankings for Division II teams, and will face an experienced Kenmore East squad that’s third in the poll. The Bulldogs won four playoff games to earn their first appearance in the final four since 2012, the season they won the state title.

Kenmore East finished on top of Western New York Hockey Federation Division II standings with a 9-6-1 record and are 16-7-1 overall. The Bulldogs’ seven losses might look deceiving as the team has played one of the most competitive schedules in New York state high school hockey. Three of their wins were against Division I teams Canisius, McQuaid (last year’s state champion) and Pittsford, and their tie came in a battle with St. Joe’s, which is currently ranked No. 1 in New York in Division I.

A week ago, Kenmore East rolled to a 6-1 regional playoff win over then second-ranked St. Lawrence to advance to the final four. Prior to that, the Bulldogs won the Section VI crown with a 5-2 victory over perennial power Williamsville East, which topped Kenmore East the past two seasons in the sectional final.

“We were extremely pleased to win the section title after two heartbreaking losses in 2014 and 2015 to Williamsville East,” Bulldogs head coach Kyle Pray said. “As a team I believe we have become more unified and less individualistic in the second half of the season. Guys are supporting each other and making on-ice decisions that are for the benefit of the team.

“I have been very pleased with the effort and how the group has worked together,” Pray added. “We played one of the hardest schedules in the state and I think this has helped us in postseason play.”

Kenmore East carries a roster of 19 players, including 10 seniors. Trevor Pray, AJ Marinelli and Anthony Tulipane, who are all seniors, lead the Bulldogs up front, while Cullen Smyth and Joey Spataro have been key defensemen as the Bulldogs’ top blue line duo.

Pray is Kenmore East’s top scorer and finished the regular season with 20 goals, 17 assists and 37 points. Pray, who is the coach’s son, also buried all five goals for the Bulldogs in their sectional final win over Williamsville East. Marinelli and Tulipane ended the regular season with 34 and 27 points, respectively, and Smyth recorded 21 points prior to the playoffs.

Pray said forwards Russ Riggio and Justin Watson have been important parts of the Bulldogs’ penalty-kill unit and and forward Gage Holler has been a force in the corners. He said Sam Balisteri and JP Giordano have also had a solid last month of the season playing as Kenmore East’s second defensive pair.

Brad Hermann and Chase Ford have provided Kenmore East with a solid one-two goaltending combination. Hermann, a senior, has been the team’s go-to guy in the playoffs and has a 2.44 goals-against average.

When it comes to team leaders, Chris Williams gone well beyond rising to the occasion for Lake Placid. As one of three senior captains along with Noah Mohr and Jared Smith, Williams has sparkled all season, and came up especially big last Saturday when he buried the game-winner in overtime to lift the Blue Bombers to the 2-1 triumph over Queensbury that advanced them to the final four.

In 23 games played, Williams has 36 goals and 35 assists. Junior Sean Moore heads into Saturday second on the team in scoring with 26 goals and 15 assists, and junior Ryan Kane is third for the Blue Bombers with 12 goals and 18 assists.

Evan Damp, Smith and Bjorn Kroes have each recorded more than 20 points for Lake Placid this season. Senior Dalton Jacques and junior Kevin Geesler are defensemen who have also gotten in on the scoring in the postseason as key playmakers for Lake Placid.

Junior Kamm Cassidy provides the Blue Bombers with one of the top goaltenders in the state. He has played in all but one of Lake Placid’s games this season and has a 17-4-1 record. In three playoff games, including those against state-ranked Beekmantown and Plattsburgh, Cassidy gave up just four goals while making 84 saves.

“We look forward to the game with Lake Placid,” Pray said. “We know they are a good team with some potent scoring up front. We will have to be strong in our own zone and capitalize on opportunities if we are going to be fortunate enough to move on.”

Lake Placid has made its postseason run, and has competed during most of the season with two forward lines and two pair of defensemen. And so far, the numbers game hasn’t seemed to hamper the Blue Bombers. Martin said a key to victory, as always, will be limiting mistakes.

“I’m sure depth is on their side, but we have pretty big hearts,” Martin said. “We go into each game knowing it’s 45 minutes, three 15-minute periods and one shift at a time. For us, it’s all about not making mistakes and taking advantage of our opportunities.

“We’ve been stressing puck possession this week,” Martin continued. “The more we have the puck, the more chances we’ll get. The less they have the puck, the less chances they’ll have.”

Lake Placid’s hockey team boarded a bus for Buffalo on Thursday after an enthusiastic sendoff from classmates and fans. On Wednesday, the Blue Bombers, along with parents and fans, were treated to a team dinner at the American Legion Post 326 as a lead up to the final four.

“Of course there’s been excitement in the air,” Martin said. “The support from the school, from the parents, from the community – it’s been overwhelming. We’ve been using the team USA locker room at the Olympic Center for our practices. This week has been a special week. The guys are excited to say the least.”

The Lake Placid-Kenmore East game at the Harbor Center is the last of four semifinal matchups scheduled for Saturday and starts at 5:15 p.m. Skaneateles and Pelham will face off in the first Division II semifinal beginning at 2:45 p.m. Two Division I battles will take place earlier in the day starting at 9:30 a.m.