Charlie Mullan was bearing in on a breakaway for the Western ice hockey team, and even before he made his move, the goal light flickered on.
An instant later he made the light go on for good, but when it comes to Western men's ice hockey at the Empire State Games, you can't really blame people for getting ahead of themselves.
Western, which has won the last seven gold medals, opened these Games with an 8-1 rout over Adirondack before a capacity crowd of about 400 in the Ice Hutch. Niagara-Wheatfield's Nick Melligan and Cole Schneider of St. Joe's both had natural hat tricks as Western put on a dominant performance that lived up to its Games history (19 golds in 25 Games).
"Everybody has been telling me [about Western's winning tradition], and I didn't know what to expect," said Western coach Dave Smith, the head coach at Canisius College in his first year of being part of the Empire State Games. "I knew there would be a lot of good players on every team. We just wanted our guys to have a great experience, and it has been so far. With the opening ceremonies and the trip down, there's a lot of good team building and bonding. And the gold medal is the carrot at the end."
Western scored 42 seconds into the game and stormed to a 3-0 lead after the first period, which was all part of Melligan's natural hat trick (scoring three goals consecutively).
Melligan's first goal came when he fired a shot in from the slot thanks to assists by Niagara-Wheatfield teammate Kevin Ogiba and St. Francis' Patrick Sullivan. Western killed off four penalties in the 17-minute period, had Derek Mohney (Sweet Home) make two great saves during a two-man disadvantage and hit hard throughout, typified by a huge hit by West Seneca's Matthew Owczarczak.
Late in the period, Melligan scored twice in a seven-second span. Kevin English (West Seneca) of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres took a drop pass from Lancaster's Joe Rogalski and found Melligan on the left side for a pretty goal with 2:26 left in the first. On the ensuing faceoff, Melligan hopped on a bouncing puck just inside the Adirondack blue line and snapped in a goal for Western's 3-0 lead.
"It was a great team effort -- if it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else," Melligan said.
Schneider became that somebody when he scored the next three goals, starting with a great rush to the net down the left wing. He scored as he cut hard across the crease with 9:52 left in the second. He banged in a rebound 4:37 later and got Western started 3:07 into the third period by cleaning up a rebound in front of an empty crease.
"There's a lot to live up to, and that's why the pressure is on," said Schneider. "We've got to keep [the gold medal streak] going."
Mullan, from Nichols, added his breakaway goal with 12:20 left in the third for a 7-0 lead. The final goal was by Buffalo's Sam Alfieri, who deflected a point shot by Rochester's Ryan Grimshaw with 3:54 to play.
Western takes on Central today at 1:30 p.m; Saturday it plays New York City at noon and Long Island at 8:30 p.m. The final game of the round-robin competition has Western meeting host Hudson Valley at noon Sunday.
"Western has had a great tradition in hockey winning the gold medal," said Melligan. "There was some pressure coming in, but after the first game, that's pretty much done. Now we can just play our game."