Niagara Gazette — AMHERST — It’s becoming an expectancy each year — the Niagara-Wheatfield hockey team gracing the ice at First Niagara Center come February.
For the fourth time in their six years, the Falcons will do just that. They defeated fifth-seeded Clarence, 4-1, Tuesday at Northtown Center at Amherst in the Western New York Hockey Federation Large School semifinals.
The Falcons, seeded second, advance to Monday’s final at First Niagara Center looking for their third straight Large School crown.
Returning 15 players from last year’s championship squad, Falcons coach Rick Wrazin noted experience was on the side of N-W, which finished 8-5-3 in the regular season. They know the landscape of the Federation playoffs and what needs to be done to protect the program’s budding reputation as an area power.
“A little bit of tradition, a little bit of pride,” Wrazin said on what gets his team to play so well in February every season. “I think they kind of feel like they belong now. Attitude wise, they come in thinking ‘This is what we want and we’re going to do it.’”
Nate Sommers was strong between the pipes for the Falcons, making 18 saves and Andrew Connelly netted the deciding goal with 13:15 left in the game. As Dakota Becker battled two Red Devils for the puck, it squirted right in front, where a waiting Connelly ripped it home stick side to make it 2-1.
“I saw a lot of open space, so I was like ‘Oh, shoot,’” Connelly said. “He left the whole left side open.”
The Red Devils got on the board first, scoring on the power play with 7:05 to play in the opening frame. Max Zwierlen, in a few feet from his right point position, fed a cross-ice pass to Josh Slowinski, who was wide open near the faceoff dot and one-timed it into the top-left corner.
Niagara-Wheatfield responded at the 11:22 mark of the second with a power-play tally of its own. With Max Herud off for high sticking, Troy Pulli unleashed a rocket from the point and it found the back of the net after dodging several bodies.
Matt Paonessa widened the Falcons’s gap to 3-1 with 2:24 left by burying a rebound. Justin Durkee assisted on the goals and added an empty-netter in the closing seconds.
Wrazin said once his team took the lead early in the third he considered going into a defensive shell to protect the lead. But after seeing his team pick up the play after a slow first period, he opted against that.
“We stayed on them,” Wrazin said. “Going into the game we talked about a lot of puck pressure and puck possession in their end. We wanted to stay with what was working.”
Preceding the game on the same rink was the other Large School semifinal, which saw top-seeded Williamsville North take care of sixth-seeded Frontier, 3-0.
It sets up a rematch of the 2012 finals, which the Falcons won, 4-0. This year’s “Super Monday” game between the Falcons and Spartans will commence at 8:30 p.m. Monday.
The two teams also squared off in the 2009 and 2010 finals. N-W won in 2009 before Will. North returned the favor the next year. It’s created quite the rivalry.
“It would make it so sweet if we beat them,” Connelly said of playing the Spartans, who beat the Falcons in both of their matchups this year. “We want them, we don’t want anybody else.
“If we win again that would just be awesome,” Connelly added. “We would be sending a message to all the schools in the state.”
Follow contributing reporter Aaron Garland on Twitter @AA_Garland.