CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. – Coaches will often include in their game plan a surprise for their opponents, something to catch them off guard, put them on their heels and gain an advantage.
Shenendehowa ice hockey coach Juan de la Rocha did just that Friday night, calling on John Sassone to be the Plainsmen net minder against rival Burnt Hills/Ballston Spa at the Capital Arena.
It wasn’t a surprise for the Spartans, but rather it was a surprise to the senior goalie that turned back all 26 shots Friday night and earned the shutout win for the victory-starved Plainsmen.
“I was apologetic to him before the game because I didn't tell the goalies who was starting till about 45 minutes before the game,” Juan de la Rocha said. “We talked at the beginning of the year; I was going to give them advanced warning.
“In past years we've had just a number one guy and it was a no-brainer, your No. 1 guy is going to start, but now everyone else has caught up. You’ve got two senior goalies and anybody can go. You’ve got two senior goalies, two juniors, anybody can go. So his number was called tonight and he played big time.”
Sassone turned back all 26 shots he faced, including a third-period gauntlet from Burnt Hills/Ballston Spa head coach Jim Buffoline, who called his own net minder, Cam Folli, to the bench with substantial time left in the third.
“I know we had a six-on- four, then a six-on-five, I think it was five minutes and five seconds to go on the third period we pulled the goalie and they couldn't get the puck out of their zone,” Jim Buffoline said. “We still couldn't score a goal, just couldn't buy a break. We couldn't get the puck onto net.”
The Spartans weren’t bashful against Sassone, outshooting the Plainsmen 26-10, but skated away without a goal for their efforts.
“Their goalie just played outstanding tonight, had a great game,” Buffoline said. “I said that we made a couple of mistakes and they seemed to capitalize on them.”
With each rush, each period, his stop count continued to rise.
“Saves, personally I try not to count them in my head because all the way growing up, you know, if you think the S-word ‘shut out’ then you know something could happen,” Sassone said. “You just keep playing, you don't think about it and you just keep playing. I just play as focused as possible and you don't even think about the score.”
The Plainsmen supported Sassone with two opening period goals from Justin Miazga and Cole Haldane, both with assists from Captain Tyler Sullivan.
“Getting up two nothing I don't think we've been up two-nothing at the end of the first period since the Mamaroneck game,” de la Rocha said. “So that was a great start for us, there has been times where we started off great, but just not getting on the board.”
Sullivan recognized what efforts paid off for his teammates.
“I feel like everybody kind of bought into the system and we worked as a unit more, we used each other and we were like able to make better passes than we have in previous games because we were moving our feet,” Sullivan said. “We had our head up and we were talking on the ice so we knew where each other were. It was just a whole combination of things and we had worked on it all in practice on Thursday.”
With Anthony Sassone depositing the puck in the net in the second period and Sullivan getting his name etched in the goal column to start the third period, Buffoline pulled out all the stops and sent the maroon army after the Plainsmen net minder.
“As it goes on you start to forget about it,” John Sassone said. “Everyone was working, it was tiring but everyone was doing their job.
“We had a great block shot, we take out of the zone and we kept it on there and I was given a little break, which is awesome.”
The win earned Shenendehowa two valuable league points and evened their overall record to .500 at 6-6, still one down in the win column in the league at 3-4 and far from turning the corner on the season.
“There's a lot of steps in this process and the turn doesn't really happen until you get to the end of February and it's going to take another month and a half,” de la Rocha said. “We took the biggest turn that we needed to take winning those four games in a row because that was just a matter of finding confidence.
“So just turn the corner, well there's a lot of corners, every game has a corner. So we're not in the clear, we're heading in the right direction because we're trending up.”