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AAA Rivals Face Off

by Matt Esaena / Arizona Coyotes

Arizona has two rival teams representing the U18 AAA division, but only one will go on to the Rocky Mountain District Regional playoff tournament in hopes of gaining a berth in the USA Hockey National tournament. The Arizona Bobcats and Coyotes Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) Jr. Coyotes are the two clubs who will battle for the chance to be the ambassador for the state of Arizona moving forward. These opponents squared off twice this weekend, adding another chapter in this ongoing rivalry, the Jr. Coyotes took home wins in both contests coming out with a 4-3 win Saturday and Sunday skating off the ice with a 5-2 victory.

The regular season matchups between these two foes may prove some importance at the end of the season. Whichever team takes the head-to-head season series will have home-ice advantage in the three-game playoff series to decide Arizona’s representative for the regional tournament.

“It’s always tough to come in here to play the Bobcats,” Jr. Coyotes head coach Mike Vukonich said about playing his team’s adversary. “It’s always a heated rivalry… the bottom line is we need to win the season series to get home ice for the playoffs.”

Sunday, the Jr. Coyotes controlled the flow of the game with their physical presence and hard fore-checking. The 5-2 win not only gave the Jr Coyotes the sweep on the weekend set, but a 3-1 lead on the season series.

“We usually like to take the tempo to them,” said CAHA captain Seth Lind. “We are not the team to sit back and let them come to us. We like to just get dirty in the corners and move the puck to the D-men.”

As to be expected with such a fierce rivalry, Saturday’s game was a fast and hard-hitting affair. The first period ended in a scoreless tie, the first goal of the game came early in the second period when CAHA forward Jackson Nauss deflected a wrist shot taken by defenseman Jon Dube that ended up behind Bobcats starting goalie Brad Donaldson. CAHA would go on to add two power-play goals on a five-minute major penalty given to Bobcats forward Jacob Kerns, for kneeing, in order to take a 3-0 lead into the third period.

The Bobcats finally found the back of the net, with 12:12 to go in the game, on the power-play when defenseman Ben Baker ripped a wrist-shot from the right point past the glove of CAHA starting net minder Jacob Berger. After another Bobcats goal which was reviewed and called fair, CAHA defenseman Matt Clarke blasted a shot from the point, on a delayed penalty, over the goal-line that would stand as the game winning tally for CAHA. The Bobcats made it close for their final push as forward Clayton Lackey registered a goal with 4:19 remaining in the game. But despite pulling their goaltender in the final minute of the game the Bobcats were unable to get any solid chances at tying the game.

“I think if you look at our team all year we have had a hard time scoring goals,” Bobcats head coach Brent Gough commented after Saturday’s loss. “We have a tendency to kind of back down, but I thought we pushed there. We were down 3-0, we made 3-2 then they score on a delayed penalty and even then we did not quit. At the end there we were a little bit tired but it was a good game.”

Coach Gough hopes that goal scoring drought ends before Jan. 7th when his team travels to Michigan for a tournament where they will open up against the California Titans. As for the Jr. Coyotes, their next matchup will be later this week against the Connecticut Wolfpack. As the number of games remaining in the season shrinks, the battles between these two rivals should make for even faster and more physical hockey games.

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