Craig As the two-time defending champions of the Women's Association of Colorado Hockey, the Puck Ewes have been skating with a bulls-eye on their backs.
That comes with the territory.
The team proved it is ready to defend its title, and possibly, earn a third in a row, with a 4-1 victory against visiting Vail Twin Peaks on Saturday.
"We are starting to see a little attitude now (that we are two-time champs) from the other teams in the league," coach Jerry Strahan said. "But, if we play our game, we can compete with anybody."
The Ewes separated themselves from Vail in the third period.
Strahan gave his team a pep talk during the break, finishing it with a chant of "win the race" from the group.
"When we are tired and slowing down," Strahan said, "it means we have to beat them to the puck on every play. We have to win the race to the puck."
His motivational speech worked.
With the score tied at one, center Jaime Eckroth hit the near post on a shot off the opening face-off, a mark of aggressiveness that would carry the Ewes throughout the final period.
Less than two minutes later, Eckroth scored her first goal of the afternoon on a well placed backhand shot past the Vail goaltender, putting her squad up 2-1.
The Ewes then went on the defensive.
Vail had trouble maintaining pressure on the Ewes defense with goalie Kandice Torno denying any attempt by Twin Peaks to tie the game in the final period.
With less than two minutes remaining, and the Puck Ewes still up by one, Torno stole the show.
Vail had a breakaway.
"I was thinking, here I go," said Torno.
The game was on the line.
"I knew I had to hold my ground," she said. "I had to stand tall in the net."
Torno stuffed the Vail wrist shot, keeping the lead intact.
"I just snagged it from the air," she said, "and that was it."
Eckroth wasn't finished.
Vail pulled its goalie, and Eckroth deposited her second goal into the open net.
Thirty-five seconds later, she completed the hat trick, blasting a wrister past the Twin Peaks goalie, for a 4-1 lead and the final margin of victory.
"We had really good passing out there today," Eckroth said. "I was just focused on hitting the open ice. The goals came from that."
The Ewes will have six days of practice before they host Aspen on Saturday.
"We played well even though we have only been on the ice for a few weeks," Strahan said. "Our conditioning isn't quite there yet, but what makes us strong is our intelligence. I always say this is a team of age and experience. We have a team full of smart hockey players."