Unique circumstances meant the winners of Wednesday night's Section VI Division II boys hockey semifinals each were guaranteed berths into the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association quarterfinals.
That doesn't mean the Section VI final between West Seneca West and Sweet Home at 6:15 p.m. Monday night at KeyBank Center won't be a battle. The passion and the intensity will flow with ease for a simple reason.
"It's a matter of having that (championship) banner. That's motivation enough," West coach Kevin Rozo said following the Indians' 5-3 triumph over Williamsville East at HarborCenter.
The same holds true for Sweet Home, which has spent this season looking to prove its naysayers wrong and did so once again by scoring a mild upset over defending Section VI champion West Seneca East, 3-2.
Tyler Edholm's power-play goal with 9 minutes, 35 seconds left broke a 2-2 tie and set up a big finish in which the Panthers watched West Seneca East hit two posts on quality chances. They also needed to kill off a penalty during the final 1:16 to punch their ticket to states for the third time in their history.
"Doubt fuels us," said sophomore forward Blake Russo, who finished with a goal and assisted on the game-winner. "We believe no one can stop us and when we play together as a team no one can stop us. … It's an amazing feeling."
How do teams secure bids for states before even playing for the section title?
There aren't enough small school sectional champions in the state to complete the NYSPHSAA Tournament bracket. The way officials opted to solve the problem a few years ago was to add an at-large team to the field that rotates section to section.
This year, it's Section VI's turn to send an extra team. The winner of the Section VI final at 6:15 Monday at KeyBank Center gets to host a state quarterfinal game March 3 at HarborCenter, while the loser hits the road to face the Section VII champion.
"This means everything to everyone in the room," Edholm said. "It's awesome. Who'd thought when we were all freshmen playing together we'd be going to states."
Edholm is one of seven seniors in their fourth season with the Panthers.
When he and they first suited up, they were as longtime coach Dave Gerspach described, "really a JV team made into a varsity team."
They took their lumps, a reason they've been assigned to the weaker of the two small school divisions in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation. But in the league regarded by many as the top scholastic circuit in the state, the Panthers came into their own this year. They won the Lake Placid Tournament earlier this month. They even spent time ranked No. 1 in the state for the first time in their history.
When they were state No. 1, some wondered whether they were even the best small-school team within their section.
After Wednesday's win, Sweet Home (18-3-1) knows it's at least in the top two.
The Panthers, ranked fourth in the latest state poll, took a 1-0 lead in the first period on the power play as Kyle Neudorf scored off assists from senior Andrew Czyz and Edholm. The Trojans (13-8-1), who won the title as a No. 7 seed last year, tied it on Colin Schmatz's short-handed goal with 2:32 left in the first.
The teams exchanged goals rather quickly in the second with the Panthers taking a 2-1 lead on Russo's goal just 4:43 into the period. East tied it 30 seconds later on Wilford Whitney's tally.
The defending champions had some nice chances to take the lead but failed to do so because they either hit iron or goaltender Michael Lisman (26 saves). The Trojans rang one off the post off a face-off play with three seconds left in the second period that could've swung momentum.
Edholm swung it to his side for good by firing in the game-winner with 9:35 left off assists from Russo and Joe Torrillo.
The Trojans came close only to hear the Panthers roar in jubilation at the end.
Meanwhile a phenomenal second period enabled West Seneca West to seize control against a Williamsville East crew looking to return to the sectional final for the seventh time in eight years. The Indians scored thrice to take a 4-1 lead into the intermission, with Chase Chodkowski's booming one-timer on the power-play sparking the blitz as it gave West a 2-0 lead early in the period. Ryan Mitchell scored the first of his two goals to pull Williamsville East within 2-1 with 6:53 left in the second, but goals 53 seconds apart from Colin Duebell and Chodkowski made it 4-1.
The Flames made it interesting during a third period in which they outshot West 18-3. Eric Metz's goal with 7:46 left pulled Williamsville East within 4-3 -- anyone's game until Tyler Dunning's empty-netter with 8.1 seconds left sealed it for Rozo's crew, which last won a sectional title in 2013. Goalie Noah Sobczyk made 31 saves in victory.
"We want the banner," Rozo said. "A couple more mountains to climb."