NORTH TONAWANDA — With less than 30 days remaining in the Section VI Boys hockey regular season, two of Niagara County’s programs are experiencing a tale of two seasons.
As of Thursday, the Niagara Wheatfield Falcons (9-2-1) are projected to finish as a top-four seed in the Small School postseason while the Grand Island Vikings (4-5-0) are at a crossroads for the season.
Behind a pair of goals in the second period, the Falcons defeated their long-time Niagara Frontier League member, the Vikings, in a 5-1 fashion Wednesday night at the Hockey Outlet Ice Complex. Their sixth win over their last eight contests dating back to a 4-4 tie against Clarence on Dec. 9, the Falcons remain one game back of Kenmore East (9-3) atop the NFL standings.
All it took for the red-and-black scoring machine to start producing Wednesday against the Vikings was simply scoring the game’s first goal, which happened after senior forward Anthony LaGreca connected off junior Easton Larrabee’s pass for the 1-0 lead with 1:50 left in the first period. Falcons head coach Rick Wrazin described the play as “big.”
“We knew it was going to be a battle and it definitely helps to get a little momentum by scoring early,” said Wrazin, now in his 15th season coaching in Sanborn. “After that, we also know they’re going to keep coming. It was a battle throughout the whole game.”
Grand Island responded with a power-play goal from senior Eddie Kwarciak at the 13:40 mark of the second period to tie the score at 1-1 before the Falcons scored four unanswered goals the rest of the night. LaGreca scored his second to give the Falcons a 2-1 lead before linemate Roman Adamshick added a pair of goals over the second and third periods — his first coming on the power-play.
Considered one of the best top lines in Section VI hockey, LaGreca, Adamshick and junior forward and leading scorer Robert Wegrzyn (19 goals) have combined for 40 goals and 52 assists (92 points) thus far, fire-powering a Falcons offense that has scored a whopping 85 goals (7.1 per game) this season.
“They work the puck down low really well,” said Wrazin, who noted the entire roster has speed amongst its depth. “They cycle pucks, they find each other and besides being offensively skilled, they’re also very physical. They’re a good compliment to each other… If they’re not scoring, they’re getting the assists.”
Grand Island, meanwhile, has now lost three consecutive contests, a stretch that included losses to both Kenmore East (3-2 on Jan. 7) and Kenmore West (6-3 on Jan. 9). Head coach Bob Simpson said there is still plenty of hockey left to play.
“I know it’s cliche to say but I see this three-game losing streak as an opportunity to kind of reflect on our season so far,” said Simpson, now in his second year as head coach and 13th overall with the Vikings. “Reflect on your role and figure out, ‘Okay, what’s my role going to be moving forward and how can we find a winning formula?’”
The winning formula most definitely still includes Kwarciak, who scored his eighth goal of the season and his 42nd of his three-year letterman career. Kwarciak has transformed from his 16-goal, top-10 scoring finish as a sophomore to becoming an overall team leader in the Grand Island locker room, which graduated top goal-scorer Liam Snyder to graduation last winter and is currently missing junior defenseman Peyton Abbott due to an off-season injury.
Kwarciak’s presence has been paramount for the Vikings this winter, who are suiting up nine players in 10th grade or below. Sophomores like Ian Hannon and Sully Korte look to Kwarciak as a veteran presence while they gain varsity level experience.
“(Eddie’s) kind of a quiet leader,” said Simpson.”“He’s just an athlete… He can do it all. It’s just the fact that we got to build around him a little bit.”
To get back to what propelled them to their 4-2 start to the season, Simpson said the Vikings need more even-strength goals but noted the team is still producing scoring chances.
“Hockey’s pretty simple — simplify the game,” said Simpson on the team’s game-plan. “Work behind them, get pucks deep, work low to high, it’s real simple. Play behind them, make them turn and go all out on the forecheck. And we’re just not doing that right now. And when we do have the opportunities, we’re not capitalizing, especially when we play better teams than us who might have a little more skill… Just because they have a little more skill doesn’t mean it’s automatically a win for them.”
After graduating nine seniors last season, the Falcons, in strong contrast to the Vikings, have 11 seniors and eight juniors on the team, with the majority of them on the bench in their 6-3 Small School Semifinal loss to Hamburg this past February. Having a strong upperclassmen presence again this winter, Wrazin said, is “definitely” helpful.
“We have guys who feel like they left the playoffs early last year and so they want to get everybody on track and make sure that guys don’t take it for granted and let it happen again,” said Wrazin, who was behind the bench the last time the Falcons won the Section VI title in 2018.
And while he believes the team has championship-caliber potential next month, Wrazin said the team is focused on staying in the present moment.
“I think at this point our job is just to get better every day,” said Wrazin, who was behind the bench the last time the Falcons won the Section VI Division I title in 2018. “And, if we continue to do that, I think it’s a good group and they’re going to be a hard out for everyone.”
Niagara Wheatfield returns to action to face Starpoint at 12:40 p.m. Saturday at Hockey Outlet. Grand Island battles Lewiston-Porter at 5 p.m. Monday at Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena.
Joe Kraus can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ByJoeKraus.