Niagara Gazette — NIAGARA FALLS — Their final scores at the inaugural Cataract City Hockey Classic may have been disappointing, but Niagara Falls High School’s hockey program has already recorded five wins early into the Western New York Hockey Federation season. In addition, the Wolverines were more than capable hosts at their inaugural hockey showcase at Hyde Park Ice Pavilion this weekend.
In spite of their two losses, they sent a message to the Western New York hockey community: we’re here. And we’re growing.
The Wolverines gave up an early goal but otherwise stayed close with Victor High School in the early stages of Saturday morning’s Classic matchup. However, coming off a tense, emotional 7-5 loss to Grand Island late Friday night — a game that did not finish until after Friday’s press deadline — the Wolverines ran out energy as Saturday’s game against Victor progressed.
“I think it was a big factor,” said Niagara Falls head coach Stan Wojton. “We came out flat. We dug ourselves a hole and we battled back again (Friday) night but it’s very difficult to come back and try and do that twice in 12 hours.”
Niagara Falls (5-1-1 league, 5-3-1 overall) conceded two more goals in the second period, then fell behind 6-0 in the third period before Nicholas Frame broke the shutout with his goal at the 11:44 mark of the third period, assisted by Ian Ivancic. The momentum was short lived, as Victor responded with two quick goals to skate to an 8-1 win.
Max Asklar turned aside 22 shots.
The night before, Niagara Falls went on a roller coaster ride with the more established Grand Island Vikings and stunned their guests with two quick goals late in the first period. Vince Colosi and Alex Hailey netted the goals to lift the Wolverines ahead.
The Vikings very quickly erased that lead in the second period as Mark McKenna scored two goals in 39 seconds to tie the game. Then, with 1:06 remaining, Robert Nappo scored to put Grand Island ahead, with Brandon Pratt adding a goal with just seconds remaining to send the Vikings into the second intermission with a 4-2 lead.
Just over three minutes into the third period, the Wolverines’ Nick LePine scored to cut the Viking lead to 4-3. Nappo scored his second goal of the game to restore Grand Island’s two-goal lead about two and a half minutes later.
Then the Wolverines responded with two goals just 45 seconds apart to even the score, scored by Paul Barker and followed by Cody Bielec. But once again, Niagara Falls’ momentum was short-lived.
Just 20 seconds after Niagara Falls evened the score, Nappo completed a hat trick with what proved to be the game-winning goal. Austin Blair added an empty net goal with less than a minute remaining to seal Grand Island’s win.
TJ Morgan recorded three assists for the Vikings.
Even having dropped both of their games at the Cataract City Classic, Wojton looked at some positive lessons his program could learn from this weekend’s experience.
“For us it’s going to be maturity,” he said. “This is going to help us grow because we do have a young team. Multiple times this season, not just in our game (againsts Grand Island) we responded, we’ve answered. We’d love to have it every single time but unfortunately I don’t know if that’s possible. But I think that a game like this, and honestly getting out butts handed to us, is going to help us grow up in the future.”
In the meantime, the young Wolverines have learned a lot about competing with some more established high school programs in “Fed.” Three of their wins were one-goal decisions. Niagara Falls, which is currently classified “non-league” in the Federation, has a young squad but is showing signs that the program could grow and, in short time, be promoted to the league’s Division 2.
“I think the format for the league is great because the premise behind it is that all teams are going to play competitive regular season games,” Wojton said. “You’re going to have a balanced schedule where every night, if your team shows up, you’re going to have a legitimate chance to win, versus unbalanced schedules and games that aren’t appropriate for the kids.”
Part of what will determine the Wolverines hockey program’s growth is the level of greater interest in the game by local youth. Wojton suggests there’s a correlation of interest and the success of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. When the Sabres play well, more kids want to take up the game. Those kids who got into the game when the Sabres were last contenders are now the freshmen and sophomores that Wojton can choose.
So is he worried about how the currently struggling Sabres may affect is future talent pool?
“Numbers wise, we’re good,” he said. “From what I know of our younger grades, our draw is going to be consistent for the next five years. I don’t know what’s going on in first and second grade, but for the next five years we should be pretty good with our draw.”