John Bak has coached Lancaster boys hockey for more than two decades, first as a varsity assistant dating to the program’s club days, and for the past five years as modified head coach.
When Kevin Miller shifted to coach the combined Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew girls team that went on to win a regular season title in his first year, Bak brought measured optimism into his first season coaching the Lancaster boys in the Western New York Federation.
“I tend to be a pretty positive person and I planned for us to be successful,” Bak said. “But the success that we’ve had has gone beyond my expectations.”
“We knew we had it in us,” junior forward Jonah Ahrens said. “But the results have definitely been better than we expected.”
The Legends (11-2-2) built their confidence with an early five-game unbeaten streak and have won eight of their last nine to clinch the top seed for the Section VI large school playoffs with more than two weeks remaining in the regular season.
“We are rolling right now,” senior captain Max Richter said. “We knew we had a lot of skill coming into the season and we had high hopes.”
Lancaster’s early success included wins against Orchard Park, Clarence and Williamsville North, three of the stronger large schools in the Fed.
“Getting those big rivalry wins under our belt, at that moment, you could see we had something special,” said Richter, who leads the Legends with 30 points (17 goals, 13 assists).
The coaching transition has gone smoothly for the Legends, many of whom played modified hockey for Bak.
“I remember that year, we had a lot of success, too,” Ahrens. “His style translated to the Fed level. He’s been a positive presence motivating all of us.”
Lancaster secured the Division II title and the top seed for sectionals last Saturday when Orchard Park lost against St. Joe’s. The Legends beat Canisius 5-4 the night before in a game that was rescheduled from Dec. 22 because of a shattered glass panel in the first period.
Canisius came back and beat Lancaster 3-1 on Saturday, providing Bak with a motivational message for his team ahead of the postseason.
“If you don’t show up and play, you are going to lose,” Bak said. “We’ve had a very good season, but the gap between us, OP, Clarence and North is tight. But I’d rather we get this out of the way now than during the playoffs.”
Lancaster’s veterans also have vivid memories of losing against Niagara Wheatfield in the semifinals as the top seed in last year’s sectionals.
“A lot of our guys are feeding off the disappointment from last year,” Richter said. “Now we are in a similar position where we can redeem ourselves.”
Lancaster will face a tough test in Saturday’s nonleague game against St. Joe’s (3:25 p.m. at Northtown Center). The Marauders (16-1-3) are ranked No. 2 in the state and the Legends are sixth. St. Joe’s also is the only large school with a greater goal differential (plus-26) than Lancaster (plus-24). The two teams played to a 3-3 tie in the first meeting of the season.
Williamsville South sits atop the small school standings with 26 points (13-1-0-0).
Senior forward Ben Carey leads the Fed with 22 goals for the Billies, who are enjoying one of the best seasons in program history with a 14-4-0-0 overall record. Last year, the team finished 7-14-0-0 and lost in the sectional prequarterfinals.
But the Billies haven’t clinched the top seed for the playoffs yet. Starpoint is right behind with 24 points (11-1-1-1) after beating defending sectional champion Grand Island, who is still in contention with 22 points (10-1-1-1) and a game in hand.
South wraps up the regular season with league games against Sweet Home on Saturday (1:10 p.m., Northtown Center) and Kenmore West on Sunday (7:30 p.m., Harborcenter).
Starpoint’s remaining league games are against North Tonawanda on Friday (6:20 p.m., Cornerstone Arena) and Kenmore East on Wednesday (6:20 p.m., Hockey Outlet).
In the large school playoff race, Orchard Park and Clarence are tied for second place with 14 points.
Orchard Park (7-4-0-0 league) wraps up league play this weekend with games against St. Mary’s on Friday (6:05 p.m., Leisure Ice Rink) and Williamsville North on Saturday (5:20 p.m., Leisure Ice Rink).
Clarence (6-3-1-1 league) plays at the Salmon River Tournament this weekend before returning to league play against North on Feb. 14 (5:40 p.m., Northtown Center) and Lancaster on Feb. 16 (5:20 p.m., Holiday Twin Rinks).
In the Monsignor Martin standings, St. Mary’s is second behind St. Joe’s with 13 points (6-4-1-0) and Canisius is close behind in third with 11 points (4-3-3-0). Remaining league games for St. Mary’s are against Orchard Park on Friday (6:05 p.m., Leisure Ice Rink) and St. Francis on Sunday (7:35 p.m., Holiday Twin Rinks). Canisius has three games remaining against Niagara Wheatfield on Sunday (1:10 p.m., Buffalo State), St. Francis on Feb. 14 (8:20 p.m., Leisure) and Bishop Timon-St. Jude on Feb. 16 (5:30 p.m., HarborCenter).
Members of the Cheektowaga Warriors team that won the USA Hockey Tier II 16U national championship last April have made an impact during the Fed season.
Six players from the Warriors are captains or assistant captains for their high school team: Billy Coughlin (West Seneca West), Bryson Miller (Orchard Park), Max Richter (Lancaster), Zach Tominich (Depew), Matt Walsh (Hamburg) and Jaden Riley (Canisius).
Canisius has six players from the team on its roster: Colin Brown, Chris Heitzhaus, Michael Lafferty, Ryan Laschinger, Dan Tocco and Riley.
In addition to Richter, four other Warriors skate for first-place Lancaster: Jesse Calhoun, Ethan Miller, Preston Schlager and goaltender Joshua Ruffner).
“Winning that championship really gave us a morale boost and helped us build chemistry,” Richter said.
Fed teams won’t need to travel out of the area in their pursuit of a state title.
Section VI and Monsignor Martin playoffs begin Feb. 20 with quarterfinal games at Harborcenter and Northtown Center.
The three championship games will be played March 1 at KeyBank Center.
Section VI will host regional playoff games March 7 at Harborcenter and SUNY Buffalo State.
State champions for large, small and private schools will be determined March 14-15 at Harborcenter.