Friday night's game between Steamboat Springs and Air Academy wasn't going to effect the post-season seeding, but that didn't seem to slow either of the teams on the ice.
It was the final game for Air Academy (17-1), a team favored to beat the 7-10 Sailors. But on the ice, the two teams played a back-and-fourth contest that could have gone either way for 45 minutes.
When the final period ended, the visitors had escaped Howelsen Hill Ice Arena with a 2-1 victory, but the Sailors skated off the ice knowing they can play with any team in the state.
"This is the best game we've played so far," senior Chris Ruff said after the game. "We are not disappointed. We would have liked to have won, but we are playing good hockey going into the playoffs, and it shows that we are ready."
Assistant Jeff Ruff agreed that this was the best game he has seen from the Sailors this season, and it came against a team he thinks has the best shot at the state title.
As expected, Air Academy came out hard, taking advantage of its team speed to attack the Sailors early. Steamboat responded with disciplined defense and patient offense. The Sailors held Air Academy, a team that typically fires 36 shots on its opponents, to just 21 in Friday night's game. Randy Rule, who was solid between the pipes, stopped seven shots in the opening period and finished the game with 19 saves.
Steamboat scored first with 7:32 left in the first period. Senior Chris Baumann got a turnover in the neutral zone that created a 2-1 opportunity. He was able to feed the puck ahead to a streaking Jake Stanford, who drove the puck past Air Academy goalkeeper Alex Harbison for the score.
Steamboat also beat Harbison another time in the period, but it came a half-second after the game clock expired in the first period.
Air Academy used an aggressive, physical attack to turn the tables on Steamboat in the second period.
The Kadets appeared to score a goal with 12:27 left in the second, but it was ruled that an Air Academy player kicked the puck into the net using his skate.
But the Kadets' assault continued.
Air Academy's first goal came from senior Cody Paul with 4:41 left in the second period. But the biggest goal of the game came with just more than 40 seconds left to play in the period when Sam Lovejoy scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Steamboat out-shot Air Academy in the final period, nine to five, but couldn't get the goal it needed to tie the score.
"In some of our other games, we were disappointed when we lost because we had some major breakdowns that cost us big time," coach Dave Strang said. "Tonight, we didn't have those breakdowns ... Air Academy won the game with great play, not because of our mistakes."
The coach expects the same type of game from his players today when they take the ice against Doherty at 1:15 p.m. Once again, the game will have little or no effect on where the Sailors are seeded for the playoffs, but that will not stop Steamboat from playing hard.
"The past two years, I've played on this team, and I've watched several of the seniors cry in the locker room after losing the final home game of the season, but after tonight's game, I don't think that is going to happen this year," Ruff said.