LOVELAND — After their respective performances in the quarterfinals, the stakes were high for goaltenders Brady Mielnicki and Joey Owston. Neither would disappoint.
The two combined for 69 saves in a back-and-forth battle that saw Cherry Creek (18-4 overall) finally defeat Dakota Ridge (18-4) by a final of 3-2 in the unprecedented sixth five-minute overtime period on Chris Nitchen's game-winning goal. The win means Cherry Creek advances to the state championship game.
The six overtimes make the game the longest in state history.
Following his spectacular 41-save performance against defending champion Ralston Valley, Mielnicki’s night was no easier against the Eagles, who peppered the Bruins’ netminder with 32 shots.
“He’s had outstanding focus,” Cherry Creek head coach Jeff Mielnicki said of his goaltender. “You know he worked really hard this summer, knowing what the opportunity could be and he didn’t play baseball and instead was on the ice six days a week, working to be where he is now.”
He was matched on the other end by Owston, who made 39 saves of his own in a losing effort.
Despite Owston’s success, it would be Creek that opened up the scoring in a very physical first period, when Bruins’ defenseman James Shelton unleashed a high blast from the point that snuck past the screened Eagles goalie on the short side.
Dakota Ridge would waste little time answering though, as Zach Ross would bury a nice centering pass from teammate Zach Williams behind the net to tie the game at one with just over five minutes remaining in the first period.
And the Eagles weren’t done in the opening frame either. Just a few minutes later, a slapshot by Ross glanced off of a partially screened Mielnicki (who finished with a whopping 30 saves of his own), leaving a fat rebound that was slammed home by Eagles forward Graehm Konsella.
As the second period began, a full two-minute 5-on-3 power play put the Bruins right back in the driver seat. Although they didn’t score during the advantage, Cherry Creek brought their shot total from three to 13 in under seven minutes as a result of their newfound momentum and would carry it through the end of the period.
Ironically, the Bruins’ best chance to score during their dominant second period had very little to do with their overall play. During a race for a dumped puck that didn’t quite make it to an icing call, Sam Harris leaned in to swat the puck towards Owston and away from his defensive counterpart. The bizarre nature of the play may have surprised the Dakota Ridge netminder, but luckily the puck fluttered harmlessly high.
The third period saw the two teams return to equal footing, as the penalties slowed and Dakota Ridge regained their composure at even strength. While the two teams went blow for blow though, the overall atmosphere of the third period was fairly cautious.
Then, with less than seven minutes remaining in the regulation, a flurry in front of the Dakota Ridge net turned into a tie game as Max Tennant slipped the puck past Owston.
It was only fitting that these two teams would end it in overtime. But then a first overtime turned into a second, where early on a hand pass waived off a would-be game-winner by Dakota Ridge. Then a second overtime turned into a third, then a fourth where Nick Chavez of Cherry Creek took a breakaway left to right in front of Owston, who just got a pad on the puck to make the save.
The teams weren’t finished either, and would ultimately play into the sixth overtime before Nitchen of Cherry Creek managed to turn a routine breakout into a partial breakaway with a burst of speed, then fired the puck over a sprawling Owston into the top left corner to seal the win for Cherry Creek.
“I remember that (Nitchen) was in a little video we did,” coach Mielnicki said, “and all he said was, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to win the state championship game?' And he put us there.”
For the Bruins, their return to the championship marks the school’s first trip since 1981, a 3-1 loss to Arapahoe. Cherry Creek’s hockey program was shut down shortly later and just started up again two seasons ago.
But although the night belonged to the Bruins, few could argue that it was Owston’s outstanding play in net that stole the show. Asked after the game what the future might hold for the senior netminder, Owston seemed content to take it one day at a time.
“We’ll just see what comes next,” Owston said. “I’ve really enjoyed competitive hockey but I don’t know yet if it’s something I want to do in college. Maybe club.”
The guess here is that the kid will find a place to play if he wants it.
As for Cherry Creek, they will face the winner of the second semifinal game between Regis and Monarch. For the Bruins though, it’s all just gravy after the support the hockey team has been shown by the school.
“Our district head, our principals, our assistant principles, our ADs, you know these people are supporting hockey,” Mielnicki said of the support. “We’re going to continue to grow because of that.”
That may be true, but on Saturday, Cherry Creek will play for the state championship, and that has to feel even better.