BELLINGHAM - Bellingham Blazers players, donned in red and black, bobbed up and down on the bench. West Sound Warriors players, garbed in gold and black, swayed back and forth. Both teams anxiously awaited the drop of the puck. The tension built.
The two teams are part of the biggest rivalry in the league, and this time around a lot more than just pride was on the line.
The best-of-five Northern Pacific Hockey League Cascade Cup Championship has been the inevitable all year for the top two teams in the league and the first game didn't disappoint.
The hits were hard, the shots even harder. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they were on the wrong side of most of the blows in their 4-2 loss.
But Blazers forward Luke Wagner isn't worried about opening the series with a loss.
"We know we're the better team," Wagner said. "We're the more complete team. We know they're going to collapse, it's just a matter of when."
Two minutes into the game, Bellingham's Chad Haywood had an open shots at goal, but fired it high. Second later, the Warriors showed their weakness: discipline. The Warriors are the most penalized team in the NPHL and Adam Moon showed why, as he got sent to the box 2:31 into the game.
On the powerplay, the Blazers hoped to capitalized but it was the Warriors that reaped the rewards. With 17:02 left in the first, the Warriors' leading point-scorer Peter Mingus stole the puck, skated down the ice and beat Blazers goaltender Robert MacDonald to get the shorthanded goal.
The Warriors committed two more penalties in the period, and the last finally benefited the Blazers. A minute into the powerplay, Kacey Walker scored on a slapshot from the point, evening the game up with 8:54 left in the first.
After a first period in which the Blazers outshot the Warriors 15-10, the second period was mostly West Sound. The Warriors took 20 shots on goal, compared to the Blazers' 10.
The scoring kicked off four minutes into the period, when Mingus capitalized on a slashing penalty by Sasha Perron and scored his second goal of the night to put the Warriors up 2-1.
Less than a minute later, the Warriors struck again. This time it was Henry Huerta, who took a pass from Max McInnis to beat MacDonald.
After 10 minutes of uninspiring play by both sides - few big hits and few shots - NPHL's offensive MVP Cody Rich made it a one-goal game. He skated in on the two-man breakaway, thought about passing it but decided to put it past Warriors goaltender Forrest Savel with 3:32 left in the period.
The Blazers couldn't build momentum, though, and took two penalties within a minute of one another to put the Warriors on the 5-on-3 powerplay.
With the two-man advantage, the Warriors scored just 10 seconds before the period's end. Ivan Bodarenko snuck it past the sprawling MacDonald, sending Bellingham to the lockers down two.
The third period was controlled by the Blazers throughout, as they peppered Savel with 18 shots in the period. Nothing came of it, though, and the extra pressure on the forecheck didn't result in the buzzer ringing for the Blazers.
The only noteworthy action in the third came after a huge hit on the Warriors' Scotty Perkins sent him into the boards. After lying on the ground for several seconds, he got up, skated to the first Blazer he saw and punched him in the face.
That Blazer was Wagner, who attempted to fight back, but with Perkins wearing a full cage to protect his face, there wasn't much Wagner could do.
"I just got jumped," Wagner said of the sucker punch.
The fight highlighted the fact that these two teams don't like each other.
"It's a good rivalry," Wagner said. "We just don't get along, as you saw in the scuffle there at the end."
The rivalry started a year ago in the championship game when the Blazers topped the Warriors in five games after coming back from a 2-1 series deficit and taking a win-or-go-home Game 4 to double overtime.
This year the rivalry grew to even bigger proportions. The teams almost split the 10 games played between them this year. The Blazers have the 6-4 advantage this year, including wins in the last four meetings, but the Warriors had an 8-1 advantage in the regular season last year.
The Blazers have lost five games this season, four to the Warriors. West Sound has lost seven games this year, six to Bellingham.
"It's going to be a good series," Wagner said. "We're going to come ready to play."
The teams face off at 7:35 p.m. for Game 2 of the series on Wednesday, March 5, at the Bellingham Sportsplex. The winner of the series will go onto the USA Hockey Tier III Junior National Championships, which start on April 3 in Simsbury, Conn.