CENTENNIAL — At this point, when Regis Jesuit takes the ice, they know they are getting their opposition’s best shot.
Such was the case again on Friday night, as the No. 1 Red Raiders (16-0-0 overall, 12-0-0 Foothills Conference) would need a goal with less than a minute to go to tie the No. 2 Ralston Valley Mustangs (15-1-1, 11-0-1) 2-2 after an explosive back-and-forth affair.
“I’m real proud of the way these guys are as a team,” Regis coach Dan Woodley said of his team. “It was nice to see them stay together and weather those storms as a team, and to see it pay off with the late goal at the end when we were really under the gun.”
The late goal from team captain Jack Jordan may have saved the point, but the team weathered the storms from the Mustangs due in large part to goaltender Sam Gartner, who once again showed that he has a flare for stepping up in big games by stopping 24 of 26 shots on net.
“Sam has great mental capacity that helps him get into his highest playing level,” Woodley said. “He’s played a lot of minutes for us in preparation of what’s awaiting us here at the end of the season.”
The first period began like many other top-notch schools taking on the Foothills Conference top dogs. Pace of play and precision passing fueled an early onslaught for the Mustangs, while Regis used their size to dictate physical play and create turnovers.
Ralston’s top line of leading scorers Jeff Moffat, Tony Salazar, and Stefan Fruhwirth led the way, providing their team’s sustained pressure midway through the period.
However, with just a few minutes left in the period it was Regis’s Grant Johnson and John Kane that managed the best scoring chance of the period, turning a speedy transition into a 2 on 1 break that Mustang goaltender Scott Albertoni, who made 13 saves of his own in the contest, barely managed to get a pad on.
The teams continued to trade blows in the second, but a careful pace had replaced the breakneck speed of the first period. The result was a series of shifts of sustained pressure by both schools, with no shortage of scoring chances. Every time the Raiders looked like they were finally bullying Ralston into submission, the Mustangs came back with a series of flurries that pushed Gartner to his limits.
Finally, with just 1:40 to go in the period, a routine shot from the point from Regis defenseman Spencer Chuck found the stick of Connor Brennan in front of the net, who tipped it just inside the right post for the first goal of the game.
Down 1-0 with a 17-8 shots on goal advantage entering the third, the wind had left the sails for Ralston in the third period. The Raiders’ physical play had taken its toll, and the stifling team defense that had frustrated the Raiders started to break down through the middle of the ice.
Then, with less than eight minutes to play in the game, a prolonged stint in the Regis zone put Gartner under fire, and Ian Snedden of the Mustangs fired in a loose rebound to tie the game 1-1.
“I think the whole thing is staying positive,” Ralston Valley coach Matt Schoepflin said. “We were playing a good hockey game and doing the right things. With this group it’s all about staying with the gameplan and in the third period we finally saw that pay off.”
From there, it was back to the pace of the first period, with both teams trading furious rushes up and down the ice.
Ralston then would tally again with a goal by Tony Salazar with two minutes to go in the game, representing the first breakthrough for the Mustang’s top line. But despite the tilted ice for his top unit, Schoepflin insisted that this thriller was a team effort through and through.
“I thought everyone contributed in their own way in this game,” Shoepflin said. “To make a run in this league, you need everyone to contribute and I’m proud of the way that this team stays together.”
Just as all seemed lost for the Raiders, Jordan fired home the blocker-side shot with 44 seconds remaining to force the game into overtime, where despite trading a few chances, the teams looked as evenly matched as they had all game.
When it was all over, both coaches were proud of their teams, but wary of the progress yet to be made.
“With our success,” Woodley explained, “we have to find a way to keep matching (our opponents’) speed, intensity and work ethic.”
So far, the Raiders have been up to the task, but Ralston Valley certainly made their case on Friday night.
“(Regis) is a very opportunistic team,” Shoepflin explained. “We have to adjust a few things before we play them again but I’m excited to see where we’ll be in the next few weeks.”