Super Monday … Rivalry Monday would have been a more accurate name for the tripleheader that decided the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation’s three playoff champions at First Niagara Center.
The two public school championship games featured teams who have met so often in recent years for the Division I and II titles that it’s only natural that they have developed some sort of animosity. Although the finalists for the Niagara Cup had never played each other with the championship on the line in the 25-year history of the Fed before Monday, the Canisius-St. Joe’s rivalry needs no explaining. It’s a decades-long one considered by many to be the mother of all feuds in the area.
And the hatred has been ratcheted up another notch in all of these rivalries.
Garrett Downie’s four-goal, five-point effort carried top-seed Niagara-Wheatfield to its fourth straight Section VI Division I championship as the Falcons fended off No. 2 Williamsville North, 6-4.
Not only is N-W (17-5) the only team in the Federation hockey history to win more than two straight playoff titles, Monday marked the fourth time it has beaten North (12-7) in the final. The Falcons have won five Section VI titles in their seven seasons as a varsity program.
“It’s amazing,” said Downie, who earned the assist on Andrew Logar’s game-winning goal with 4:42 left. “There are no words for it. It just feels amazing”
In the Section VI Division II final, Williamsville East became the first small school to repeat as sectional champion. The Flames did so at the expense of old friend Kenmore East, advancing to the state tournament with a 2-0 victory.
Senior Max Battistoni made 17 saves, including a couple game-savers to frustrate a more than game Bulldogs crew. He made a fine stop on AJ Marinelli off a two-on-one with over three minutes left in the third to thwart any comeback attempt by Ken East.
“It just feels amazing,” Battistoni said. “I can only thank my teammates, the fans and parents for everything. … It’s just an amazing accomplishment.”
In the Niagara Cup, Canisius ended the Marauders’ two-year championship reign as the Crusaders earned a 2-1 win over the state’s top-ranked team. Senior goalie Jake Nichols made 27 saves, coming within 2.4 seconds of a shutout, and George Munschauer and Grigorios Koutsomitis provided the goals that enabled Sam Belsito Jr. to win a championship in his first season as coach.
“I am very honored and grateful to be given the opportunity to come back and help those guys get back on top,” said Belsito, a former Canisius club hockey coach and soccer team coach. “This is a tremendous win for the program. Our varsity club team just won a state championship last night as well. I hope from here on out we’re the team people are looking to knock off.”
Niagara-Wheatfield will hit the road to face the Section V champion Saturday in the regional round of the state playoffs, while Canisius faces Chaminade for the state Catholic title at 6 p.m. Saturday at Dwyer Arena. Williamsville East plays at the Section X champion Saturday.
In Division I, Downie’s pass to the front of the net hit a North skate and ricocheted right to Logar below the right faceoff dot. He quickly snapped a shot past Nick Stafford to break a 4-4 tie. Downie capped the win with an empty-net goal with 34 seconds left.
Downie’s first two goals of the game gave N-W the lead with 6:37 left in the first, but Williamsville North struck back 15 seconds later on Adam Batz’ goal. Downie scored again at 8:19 of the second to make it 3-1 but the Spartans refused to let the Falcons pull away.
Matthew Terrance scored the first of his two second period goals to make it 3-2. N-W made it 4-2 on an unassisted goal by Chris Churakos, a long shot that just slipped through the North goalie and just crossed the goal line. The Falcons led 4-3 after two with coach Rick Wrazin pulling starter Casey Wall after Terrance scored off a goal-mouth scramble to pull North within one. Domenic Tallarico took over and stopped 11 of the 12 shots he faced. The Spartans outshot the Falcons 33-26.
“They were starting to get some momentum,” Wrazin said. “I was trying to sneak a little timeout. We’re very fortunate to have two solid goalies. A change in goalies sometimes gives a team a little kick when they need it. I think it took some momentum away from them doing that which was the intent.”
North tied it 35 seconds into the third period when Brian Couto’s point shot went in off teammate Jared Cummins, who had been sent flying through the air via cross check.
But they Spartans failed to be Tallarico after that.
“We played well tonight,” North coach Bob Rosen said. “We didn’t capitalize on some opportunities. … It was a good game.”
The Division II final was a rematch of last year’s title game. It was also the fourth time in the last five seasons Will East (20-2-0-1) and Ken East (15-6-2) have battled each other with a championship on the line.
For the third time, the Flames got the better of the Bulldogs as Matt Steffan and Alex Finley provided the offense to carry the state’s third-ranked team. Steffan scored in the first period to take some pressure off the Flames. Finley struck in the third period for Will East, which has allowed just one goal in its three playoff games.
“We were just on a mission,” said Steffan, one of 11 seniors on the Flames. “No (Division II) team had won back to back championships until now. It feels great.”
Canisius broke a scoreless tie off a two-on-one rush with 11:53 left in the second period. Munschauer ripped a wrister into the top corner from the right dot. St. Joe’s held a 28-15 edge in shots but the Crusaders did a good job preventing them from getting any Grade A scoring chances. They went out of their way to take the body any time they could against a Marauders team that while featuring only a handful of returnees from last year’s title winner did have players on its roster who won championships last year either at the club or junior varsity level.
“We worked on angling the last couple of practices,” Belsito said. “We weren’t necessarily looking for the big hit but we wanted to just get on their hands.”
Koutsomitis scored into an empty net with Marauders goalie Ben Higgins on the bench for the extra attacker with 57 seconds left.
“Three years in a row is tough,” St. Joe’s coach Rich Crozier said. “We fell a little short.”