When Tyler Dunning scored a game-clinching empty-net goal for West Seneca West on Wednesday night, you could almost hear the sigh of relief from coach Kevin Rozo in any part of the HarborCenter.
“There were eight seconds left. I figured we couldn’t mess it up,” Rozo said with a laugh.
The Indians finished off the win, a 5-3 triumph over a pesky Williamsville East squad. The game marked the second semifinal of the night in the small school division of the Section VI boys hockey tournament.
West Seneca West advanced to the Sectional final on Monday in the KeyBank Center against Sweet Home.
Just like in the first game of the night, the winner punched a ticket to the state regionals without needing to win a Sectional title. That’s the way the playoff openings happened to fall this season.
“It is a weird feeling,” Rozo said about getting to regionals. “The goal every year is to play for the Section VI title, but it’s unique this year.”
To do so, the Indians had to knock off a pesky Flames team that never gave up until the end of another playoff-worthy semifinal matchup.
The major question about this game going in was whether Williamsville East could continue to belie its No. 9 seeding in the tournament. Therefore, a good start was important for the Flames.
They got exactly that in the opening period. They finished with a 10-9 edge in shots and generally played the Indians even. Both teams hit goal posts during the course of the period.
But just when it looked as if Williamsville East would get out of the period tied, West Seneca West struck for the game’s first goal. Indians’ forward Parker Leemer received a centering pass from the left corner and got the puck bouncing around. He tucked home the goal with about 37 seconds left in the first period.
That turned out to be an important score, as Williamsville East spent the second period playing from behind. The margin grew to two goals less than five minutes in on a goal by Chase Chodkowski.
“He’s our go-to guy,” Rozo said about Chodkowski. “He’s been our catalyst on offense, and he’s added a one-timer this year.”
Ryan Mitchell got one of those back for the Flames. His shot from the middle of the blue line went through a little traffic and found its way into the net to cut the lead to 2-1.
But Williamsville East couldn’t stay within striking distance. Colin Deubell was all over a rebound less than four minutes later to make it a two-goal lead again. Then Chodkowski knocked home his second of the game less than a minute later, and it was a 4-1 lead.
You’d think it would be a matter of running out the clock from there, but that was hardly the case. Mitchell scored his second of the night early in the third period, and Eric Metz brought the Flames to within a goal with 7:46 to play in regulation. Anyone’s game.
Williamsville East piled up the shots – taking 18 in the third period – but couldn’t solve Noah Sobczyk one last time.
“He plays big,” Rozo said about his goalie. “When he gets out on the white (out of the crease), he’s tough to beat.”
When the buzzer sounded, West Seneca West had earned its first trip to the final since 2013. The victory has a couple of fringe benefits for the Indians. They get to play in a major-league arena on Monday.
“It’s my first time doing that,” Chodkowski said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience. I can’t wait.”
There’s also the matter of the Section VI championship, which will be at stake.
“There’s nothing like having that banner,” Rozo said.
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