Heading into Section III’s Division II tournament, it is defense that most concerns the defending champion Spartans – and for that matter, everybody else in the playoff hunt.
“The closer you get to the end of the year, the more it’s going to come down to winning 2-1 or 1-0 games,” said New Hartford head coach John Cunningham. “Eventually, it’s going to come down to who plays better defensively. Eventually, it’s going to come down to goaltending and defense.
“I know we’ve got the goaltending and I know we can play good defense. Sometimes, we just don’t focus on it as much as I’d like us to. But these guys know what it takes. These guys went through it last year.”
A year ago, New Hartford’s Spartans cruised to their first section title in seven seasons, outscoring three opponents by a combined 21-3 score, including a 9-0 romp over Corcoran in the Division II final at the Syracuse War Memorial. New Hartford later captured its second state championship.
This year’s Spartans (15-4-1) – minus 11 players, including Division II state Player of the Year and leading scorer Mike Zalewski – already have claimed a second straight Division II East regular-season title.
Now, New Hartford, third-place Rome Free Academy and fourth-place Clinton are preparing for a “second season” that begins tonight when RFA’s Black Knights (11-7-2) travel to Syracuse to face Corcoran (14-4-2) in the first of Section III’s Division II quarterfinal games.
The quarterfinals continue Friday night, when defending champion New Hartford hosts Christian Brothers Academy/Jamesville-DeWitt (9-8-3), Clinton (12-8-0) travels to Skaneateles (15-4-1), and Cazenovia (14-4-2) hosts Cortland-Homer (14-5-1) at Morrisville’s IcePlex.
Quarterfinal tickets are $3, and the winners advance to next week’s semifinals. The Division II final returns to the Utica Memorial Auditorium at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28.
New Hartford is facing a CBA/Jamesville-DeWitt team that played Division II West champ Skaneateles to a tie but then lost its last four regular-season games. The Spartans, meanwhile, had won six straight before last Wednesday’s 5-4 home loss to Cazenovia, but they rebounded the following night and won 7-3 at Clinton.
“This first round is always scary because the fourth-place teams have nothing to lose,” said Cunningham. “Sometimes you can play too tight or play not to lose.”
His Spartans are led by Clayton Whittemore (38 goals-19 assists-57 points), a senior center who has five hat tricks in the last six games, and eight this season. He’s skating on a line with Jason Fitzgerald (20-28-48) and Kris Martinelli (6-5-11).
Alex Fukes (20-21-41), Mike Critelli (9-12-21) and Tom Nitti (4-9-13) make up another line for the Spartans, still missing forward Joe Betar (11-7-18) with a slight concussion. Eric Fitzgerald (2-14-16) and Chris Luker (5-12-17) make up the top defensive pairing and Spencer Landry will start in goal. Cunningham also plans to give defensemen Tim Knaul, Nick Descrisci, Nick Mercurio and Jack Vitagliano plenty of ice time.
“That core group we had coming back from last year, you knew they were going to score goals,” said Cunningham. “The offense takes care of itself. You just don’t want to go into the playoffs trading goals and trying to win a 9-8 shootout.”
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