Sailors hockey hosts trio of key games

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What: Steamboat Springs High School hockey

Where: Howelsen Ice Arena

When: 6:30 p.m. vs. Rampart; 3 p.m. Saturday vs. Doherty; 5:45 p.m. Tuesday afternoon vs. Kent Denver.

— Last year, the Steamboat Springs High School hockey team learned the hard way about peaking too early. The Sailors downed the eventual state champion, Aspen Skiers, in December 2006 only to collapse down the final stretch of crucial Peak Conference games two months later. They lost six of their past seven games, barely making the postseason with a tough draw as the No. 15 seed.

Now, the Sailors' conference record stands at 4-2 with eight games to go, six of them in conference. The team's renewed focus for the immediate task of downing conference opponents was apparent at Thursday's practice.

"We're pretty confident heading into this weekend, but we're not overlooking anybody," junior Eric Bonner said. "We've talked about the conference games - we've got opportunities, so it should work out if we play like we know we can."

That confident level of play led Steamboat to a dominating 4-1 win Saturday at Pueblo County. If Steamboat can maintain that level, head coach Jeff Ruff sees a team capable of running the table and entering the playoffs seeded with a 10-2 conference record.

The run to the playoffs starts with a concentrated homestand. Steamboat will play three home games in five days, two against conference opponents, starting with its 6:30 p.m. game today versus Rampart.

Despite Rampart's 3-4 conference record (4-6 overall), the Rams present a scrappy squad that has helped create some ill memories for the Sailors.

"They beat us last year and two years ago they knocked us out of the playoffs," senior Jeff Dawes said. Tonight's game "will give us a chance to prove ourselves against them."

Ruff said if the Sailors can effectively move the puck to beat the Rams' frantic containment pressure, they should have plenty of quality shot opportunities.

"If we can be organized and be hitting our passes, then we'll beat these guys," Bonner said. "It's all about discipline."

Steamboat (5-6 overall) will head right back onto the home ice to face Doherty (2-6 in conference, 2-11 overall) at 3 p.m. Saturday and again at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday against nonconference opponent Kent Denver (5-0-2 in Foothills Conference play, 7-3-2 overall).

"The weekend games are more important, of course," Dawes said. "But the Kent game will let us show the league we can play with a high-caliber team."

After this trio of home games, Steamboat fans won't have another chance to catch the Sailors live until their final pair of home games for the season, Feb. 13 and 16.

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