It may not have been a win, but Saturday's game against Air Academy might have a defining effect on the Steamboat Springs hockey team as the state playoffs approach.
By all accounts, the Sailors (10-4-2 overall, 6-4 in league play) outskated, outplayed and outworked the third-ranked Kadets in Saturday's 1-0 loss at Howelsen Ice Arena.
The Sailors won more faceoffs, outshot the Kadets, 30-14, and took fewer penalties.
But, as has been the case at times this season, Steamboat couldn't capitalize on its opportunities.
"We're looking at it as a good performance for us," Steamboat coach Jeff Ruff said. "That performance beats nine out of 10 teams. That performance can beat this team."
While the Sailors couldn't take advantage of their power play opportunities, the Kadets (12-2-1, 6-1-1) capitalized on one of the few man advantages they had.
With 3 minutes, 49 seconds left in the first period, Air Academy defenseman Blake Wittenberg fed a pass to Nick Poynter in the neutral zone. Poynter skated into the Steamboat zone and flipped a backhanded shot above Sailors goalie Jeff Dawes' right shoulder for a 1-0 lead.
The Sailors had multiple scoring chances in the second period, but Air Academy goalie Charlie Ruzkowski turned away shot after shot.
Steamboat forward Jake Stanford's wrist shot with 4:30 left in the second sailed just wide of the net. Then, with 1:24 left in the second, several Air Academy penalties - including two unsportsmanlike conducts - left the Sailors with a 5-on-3 power play for more than three and a half minutes.
But the Sailors couldn't find the back of the net. Steamboat finished the day 0-for-10 on power plays.
"The strongest part of our game has been our penalty kill," Air Academy coach Dave Meiseinger said. "We've only given up two or three power play goals all year : but if we don't get the goaltending like we did today, we lose this game by three or four goals."
Steamboat pulled its goalie with 1:11 to play in the game, but that did little to help. Ruzkowski stopped all 30 shots he faced.
"It makes us angry, for sure," Sailors defenseman Tim Ascher said. "We thought we had it in the bag. Coming out there in the third period we all had our confidence up. We were happy in the locker room, it was a good vibe. Then we just couldn't put the puck in the net."
Despite the loss, Steamboat's still in a good position to make the state playoffs. With games against league opponents Rampart and Battle Mountain - the fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in the state - next week, Ruff said Saturday's game leaves Steamboat wanting more.
"Nobody is whining, nobody has their head down," Ruff said. "I think that everybody knows around the league that we can play when we bring our game. I think that it sends a message that we're not going away. We're here to play, and we're going to succeed."