Sailors hockey faces Aspen tonight

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— Usually, playing the defending state champion this late in the season would make a coach and team nervous.

But that's not the case for Steamboat Springs High School hockey coach Jeff Ruff and his Sailors, as they prepare to travel to Aspen today for a 6 p.m. game.

In fact, Ruff bemoans any mention that his team isn't confident.

"We're catching them at a good time," Ruff said of Aspen. "We felt earlier in the season when we played then in the tournament down in Summit, that they were playing as good hockey as they'd play all year. We played with them, but didn't play well enough to beat them."

While Aspen beat Steamboat, 4-0, on Dec. 1, 2007, at the King of the Mountains tournament, the Skiers are 1-3 in their past four games.

Add to that Ruff's feeling that Steamboat is starting to play well at the right time, and the Steamboat coach said the Sailors are brimming with confidence.

Aspen is "not playing as high a quality of hockey as they have early in the season," Ruff said. "We're feeling confident going down there that we'll give them a run for their money. Nothing we saw when we played them earlier has us real worried."

Although the game is non-conference, Ruff said that doesn't diminish its importance.

After Aspen, Steamboat closes the season with four conference games that will weigh heavy on the Sailors' playoff seeding - so Ruff said Steamboat can't afford to lose tonight.

"We feel it's important to win every game from here on out," Ruff said. "If you place less importance on this game, it gives the guys some wiggle room to play with less intensity."

Ruff said it will be important for Steamboat to maintain a consistently high level of play against Aspen.

In last Friday's loss to Rampart, Steamboat struggled to move the puck and started to fall out of its system of play. But against Doherty the next day, Steamboat went back to its principles and skated away with a 5-0 win.

"We need to establish the consistency of a high level of hockey we have had," Ruff said. "We need to just maintain the consistency : We're looking forward to it. We're at the final stretch. We have to put our head down and run as fast as we can."

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