It’s hard to tell what got under Clarence’s skin more: James Stenzel’s offense or the senior defenseman’s physical play.
Niagara-Wheatfield doesn’t really care. The Falcons are happy he’s on their side, being an impact player during Tuesday’s Section VI Division I semifinals at Northtown Center in Amherst.
The same could be said for Nick Stafford. Williamsville North’s senior goaltender frustrated Orchard Park by making clutch save after clutch save in the final seconds, leading to another championship meeting between two of the winningest hockey programs in Section VI.
Stenzel scored twice during Niagara-Wheatfield’s four-goal first period and further solidified his villain status in Clarence’s world by throwing his weight around in the second period as the three-time defending champions earned a chance at extending their consecutive titles streak by drubbing the upstart Red Devils, 6-2.
Andrew Logar and Joseph Torcasio each had a goal and an assist, while Alex Bauer and Kasey Haseley also scored for the top-seeded Falcons (16-5), who will play the second-seeded Spartans for the fifth time in a Section VI final. N-W is trying to win its fifth championship in its seventh season of varsity hockey.
North earned a spot in the final for the eighth time in nine years by holding off third-seeded Orchard Park, 2-1, in Tuesday’s second semifinal. Stafford made 10 of his 24 saves during a scoreless third period. He made three stops, including a sensational glove save, during the closing 90 seconds to preserve the victory for North (12-6), which is looking to win its seventh playoff title and first since 2011.
“You never get tired of making the finals,” longtime Spartans coach Bob Rosen said. “It just so happens that it’ll be Niagara-Wheatfield again. We just want to be there, and we just want to win.”
An estimated 2,000 attended the Division I playoff semifinal doubleheader.
A young Clarence crew played some of the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation heavyweights tough during the regular season. The Red Devils (7-12-1-2), however, were in over their heads against the big-game experienced Falcons.
Logar opened the scoring just 1:45 into the game. Niagara-Wheatfield struck again just 1 minute, 58 seconds later as Bauer one-timed a nifty drop pass by Dakota Becker through goalie Jack Niestyty’s legs.
Then Stenzel made his presence felt. He uncorked a howitzer from the left point during a power play that picked the top corner, short side on Niestyty to make it 3-0 with nine minutes left. Three minutes later, he sneaked in from the point, took a pass in the slot and quickly snapped a low shot into the corner to chase Niestyty from the game.
“It feels pretty good,” said Stenzel of helping N-W reach the final. “I like to play the body and try to impact the game in different ways.”
“We knew we had to watch out for him,” Clarence coach Richard Brooks said, “but you know he’s a force and we weren’t able to keep a handle on him.”
The Falcons led 4-1 after one period and scored two quick ones early in the second to end Clarence’s comeback hopes. Nick Lunetta and Randy Felber scored for the Red Devils, who were outshot 34-26.
In the nightcap, the teams combined for three goals in the opening 4:13. Then the goalies took over as OP’s Kyle Fallon made 33 stops.
But Stafford stole the show and his best stop was the glove save on Troy Banks’ quick redirection shot with a minute left. Stafford initially tried to block the pass in front, but it deflected to Banks off the paddle of his stick.
“Playing goalie for 12 years, the reflexes just kick in and I snapped it out of the air,” Stafford said. “I obviously made big saves, but it’s not all me. … I can’t score goals. They’ve been doing it all year.”
Bouncing pucks off the boards resulted in both North goals. Matt Noe potted a rebound during a scramble to make it 1-0. Matthew Terrance scored the winner after the puck caromed crazily off the glass and the top of the net and into the front of the goal.
Cole Schiffman scored for Orchard Park (9-7-2).