Now, it gets fun.
After a slow start, a winter break and a little bit of travel, the ice hockey season is about to hit its stride.
The changes made to divide teams into four conferences and allow more similarly matched teams — such as powerhouse local programs Regis Jesuit and the Cherry Creek co-op — to face each other more often finally come into play. The race to the Frozen Four at the University of Denver is officially on.
“I truly think this time of year is going to be a real opportunity for the CHSAA league to put on its best showcase,” Regis Jesuit coach Dan Woodley said. “We’ve obviously been scoreboard watching like everyone else and we know there are some very competitive teams out there. We like the way things are set up and how it will help us get better.
“Steel sharpens steel.”
Woodley’s Raiders (8-0) and coach Jeff Mielnicki’s Cherry Creek team — which features a mix of players from across the Cherry Creek School District — seem to be pretty sharp right now and sit No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in the first set of RPI rankings that came out Jan. 18.
The two local powers will square off against each other twice in just over a week — Jan. 27 and Feb. 4, both at Family Sports Center, their mutual home ice — and face 10 games of highly competitive Foothills Conference play ahead of the postseason.
Both teams just returned from successful out-of-state tournaments that they played under the umbrella of USA Hockey. The results don’t count in the CHSAA standings, but both were experiences that could carry the teams forward down the stretch.
Woodley’s Raiders played and won the inaugural Jesuit Classic, an eight-team tournament organized and hosted by Loyola Academy in Chicago.
The tournament is similar to the Jesuit Classic that Regis Jesuit’s boys soccer team plays in every year and also included Loyola and Saint Ignatius College Prep from Illinois, plus Cheverus (Maine), Rockhurst (Missouri), Gonzaga College Prep (Washington D.C.), Marquette (Wisconsin) and Saint Ignatius High School (Ohio).
Regis Jesuit had a slightly different roster than the one that plays the CHSAA season, but played just as well. The Raiders piled up 28 goals in three pool play games and won the championship with a 5-1 victory over Marquette Jan. 16.
“We were really hoping to get out there for the opportunity to have the Jesuit portion of the competition,” Woodley said. “On Sunday, all the teams went to Mass together and had a breakfast, so there was a little bit of a different vibe. It wasn’t as important to be the winner as it was to be part of the community.”
Healthy and ready to return the play in Colorado, Regis Jesuit hopes to pick up where it left off after a 4-2 victory over Monarch Jan. 7, a win fueled by two goals from senior Cade Alcock, including the go-ahead score on a power play in the second period.
The Bruins, meanwhile, headed out to Minnesota to compete in a tournament hosted by Wayzata High School, winner of the Pure Division of the 2016 USA High School Hockey National Championship. The invitation was extended at that tournament and Mielnicki jumped at the chance.
“I accepted the invitational right then,” Mielnicki said. “I thought it would be fun and a good chance for the team to play some top competition.”
Cherry Creek knocked off host Wayzata 5-3 despite getting into a 3-0 hole, as the Bruins scored four straight goals in the second period after Mielnicki was struck in the arm with an errant puck that knocked him off the bench.
The Bruins advanced to the Gold Division bracket and fell in a shootout to a team from Santa Margarita, California.
Outside of competition, Mielnicki’s team got a tour of St. Olaf College and a talk from former NHL coach Mike Eaves, plus a couple of hours of pond hockey under the lights.
“It was certainly well worth it and now we are ready to get back into play here,” Mielnicki said.
“I think the changes we made were great for the sport and we’ll start to see that. I’m guessing coaches will be overly ecstatic at getting to play more teams at their comparable level instead of just one or two.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
FOOTHILLS CONFERENCE ICE HOCKEY
Standings (though games of Jan. 17): REGIS JESUIT 4-0 — 8 points; CHERRY CREEK 4-0 — 8 points; Dakota Ridge 3-1 — 7 points; Ralston Valley 3-2 — 6 points; Mountain Vista 2-3-1 — 5 points; Monarch 2-2 — 4 points; Lewis-Palmer 1-6 — 2 points; Denver East 1-6 — 2 points
Regis Jesuit leaders: Goals — Shane Ott 12, Wyatt Verity 9, Kyle Nelson 5, Cade Alcock 4, Dylan Kelly 4; Assists — Dylan Kelly 14, Kyle Nelson 9, Justin Lico 7, Wyatt Verity 7, Cade Alcock 6, Rowan Barnes 6, Kale Lone 6, Nolan Sargent 6; Saves — Dillon Whalen 66, Alec Martinez 27, Max Harlan 21
Cherry Creek leaders: Goals — Sam Harris 7, Joe Arnold 5, Billy Bostwick 4, Gage Blatter 3, Adam Frances 3, Jacob Harding 3, Danny Taggart 3; Assists — Danny Taggart 9, Joe Whitmore 7, Garret Glaspy 4, Sam Harris 4; Saves — Kyle Englert 51, Dylan Romanow 34, Ryan Bevan 26