During the Western men's scholastic ice hockey's dominance at the Empire State Games, there were several years when the gold medal was clinched before the team got to the rink for its final game.
This year was different, but the result was the same.
Western stepped on the ice with the medals still undecided, but not for long. It scored the game's first four goals and got a standout performance from Sweet Home goalie Derek Mohney to beat Hudson Valley, 5-2, Sunday and go undefeated in the five-game round-robin competition and clinch Western's eighth straight gold.
"We came in expecting to win, but the big thing was hard work," said Mohney, who had 25 saves. "Every team we play, it's basically their Stanley Cup, so we knew we had to come out and outwork them."
Western has now won the gold in 20 of the 26 years ice hockey has been included in the Games.
"Eight in a row now -- it feels awesome," said Brandon Broad, a West Seneca resident who will be a senior defenseman at Nichols. "The pressure's off us now, and it's on to next year."
Four different players scored for Western as it disappointed a standing-room-only crowd of about 450 at the Ice Hutch. Mostly the crowd supported the home region. At last year's Games in Rochester, Western had already clinched the gold and played Long Island to a tie.
"We already knew we had the gold so we didn't take it too seriously," Kevin Ogiba, a Niagara-Wheatfield senior, said of last year's game. "This year it brought a lot more excitement and energy into the game."
A Hudson Valley win would have put Western, Hudson Valley and Central in a tie at 4-1, with goal differential determining the gold medal. Instead, Western prevailed (giving Central the silver and Hudson Valley the bronze) thanks to an early lead and a stellar second period by Mohney.
Western went ahead just 3:37 into the game when Nichols' Charlie Mullan deflected a point shot by Ben Certo (Grand Island). About five minutes later, Kevin English completed a pretty play for a 2-0 lead. Ryan Edwards (Spencerport) worked the puck up the left boards to Mullan, who found English streaking in from the right wing. English backhanded in his own rebound with 8:02 left in the 17-minute period. Sam Alfieri (Buffalo) made it 3-0 with 5:25 left in the first on an unassisted goal in which he swooped behind the net, came out the left side and roofed the puck into the top left corner.
Western spent much of the second period short-handed as it committed six penalties, but was repeatedly bailed out by Mohney. He stopped shots through screens, stymied two point-blank attempts, snatched a dangerously floating puck over his head and twice poked the puck away from an attacker.
Western scored again on a shorthanded goal by Patrick Sullivan of St. Francis thanks to forechecking by him and Ogiba. Hudson Valley made it 4-1 during a 5-on-3 power play as Rich Rodeschini's cross-slot pass left Robert Molinaro with an empty side to shoot at.
Mohney stunted Hudson Valley's momentum by stopping Kevin Gaughran's rush to the right side. When Gaughran scooped up the rebound and tried a wraparound, Mohney's pads were there to greet him again.
"I tried not to think about the lead too much -- I try to think that it's 0-0 to keep my team in the game the whole time," Mohney said.
Andrew Moscardelli's shot through a screen brought Hudson Valley to within 4-2 with 14:29 left to play. Mohney had a blocker save of a point shot and stuffed a few attempts at the side of the net during another power play in the final minutes.
When Hudson Valley pulled its goalie for a six-on-four skating advantage, Ogiba scored by hitting the empty target with a shot from center ice.
"It was great hockey, right down to the end," said coach Dave Smith, the head coach at Canisius College. "Every game was important. Really, all the credit goes to the players. We got good saves, we played very well. We started the process saying if we outworked our opponent as a team, we would win. And right from the get-go in this tournament, I think we did that. We outworked them and played really well together."