BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — Nico Saco saw an opening.
And he took it.
The Traverse City Central senior forward caught Traverse City West making a line change and arced up the left side — away from the Titan players leaving the bench — and ripped a high slapshot with 2:17 remaining that proved to be the game-winner in Central's second 2-1 victory over West this season.
"The puck came right to me and I saw there was an open middle," Saco said. "I took it wide and then I saw his glove side was open and took a slap shot.
"It's a big game for all us seniors, and I just wanted to win one more time against West."
Wednesday's victory at Howe Arena also clinched a third straight Jeff McCullough Memorial Challenge Cup for the Trojans.
"We did it for Jeff, too," Saco said. "And his parents. It was a big one. Hopefully they get it next year also."
"They had us bottled up in our zone there for that shift," West coach Jeremy Rintala said. "Guys were tired and were fighting just to get the puck out. And we did, but they intercepted the dump and we were a little late getting our change."
Central coach Chris Givens had said earlier that the game would come down to who made the last mistake. And the line change was the opening the Trojans needed.
"You could kind of see it was headed that way, especially once it started to get around six minutes left in the third period," Givens said. "It was going to come down to whoever made the last mistake, and it seemed like we were making a ton of them there for awhile.
"It was a good play by Nico to read the option he had there. He really didn't have a pass. The only option was a shot — and he made a good one."
The win puts Central (15-2, 7-0 BNC) even more in the driver's seat, as West (5-11-2, 4-2-1 BNC) was the Trojans' nearest competitor in league play.
"West is the next closest to us," Givens said. "And if they win out, the most they can have is 15 points with the tie at Cadillac. And we're at 14 right now, so we have to win one of our last three to lock up the conference outright."
The Trojans have BNC games remaining with Alpena, Gaylord and Cadillac — three foes they have beaten by a combined score of 17-3 this season.
"They knew it was a big game, so they came out and played hard," Saco said of the Titans. "We have a target on our back because we're ranked No. 1 in D2."
Shots on goal were much closer than last time the two met. In the previous meeting just over a month ago, Central held a commanding 43-16 advantage, while this time it was 31-30 in the Trojans' favor.
"We did much better in shots than the first time against them," Rintala said. "I felt like it was a much more even game, even though the score was the same.
"Another close one, a great game. It was our most complete game of the year. Our guys played really well and gave them everything we had. We just didn't get the bounce there at the end. But I'm very proud of our effort."
Thirteen seconds into the first power play of the game, West's Max Jenner cashed in a wrist shot to the top shelf 4:40 into the game. Dan Henderson and John Linenger picked up assists.
The Titans then killed off 1:49 of a 5-on-3 Central power play in which the Trojans consistently pressured and West didn't get a clear until 18 ticks were left on the advantage.
"The guys did a really good job there of staying disciplined and making sure we kept their shots to the outside," Rintala said. "They had some good shots, but Carter (Edmondson) played excellent. Your goalie is always your best penalty-killer."
Jon Russell knotted it back up, converting a West bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct into a 1-1 tie when he roofed the rebound of a Nico Saco shot.
"It was a good shot from the point," Russell said. "And I just tried to put it in. I don't remember how I put it in, but I got it."
Brady Brantley — who was coming back after missing several games with a shoulder injury — also drew an assist.
"It's pretty special being a freshman and being in this game," Russell said. "To make an impact was pretty cool."
Both Edmondson and Central's Bill Vermetten ended with 29 saves.
"We know Carter is a good goalie, so we to just keep getting good shots," Russell said. "Two got past him, and that's what we needed to win the game."