Stymied by Sault

GAYLORD-Going into Saturday’s game against Sault Ste. Marie, Alpena hockey coach Pete Doubek knew his team would have to play a perfect game.

While the Wildcats gave a valiant effort, the Blue Devils were at the top of their game and topped Alpena 4-0 in a Division 3 regional final at the Otsego County Sportsplex in Gaylord.

The win moves the Blue Devils to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2008. They’ll play Houghton next Wednesday.

Sault goaltender Nickolas MacKenzie finished with 26 saves and came up with another big outing as the Blue Devils earned their third straight playoff win by shutout. Sault has topped its last three opponents 20-0.

“MacKenzie’s been great last year he was kind of my part-time guy and this year he’s stepped into a big role and run with it,” Sault coach John Ferroni said. “Nick’s been good all year, but the last month he’s been a little bit bigger in the net.”

Alpena (14-11-1) only trailed 2-0 headed into the third period, but Sault notched a goal less than three minutes into the final frame to squash Alpena’s chances. The Wildcats had some chances early, but ran into penalty trouble in the second period and had a hard time keeping up with the Blue Devils in the latter part of the contest.

“The kids battled the whole game. We had a defensive injury in the third, so we became more shorthanded, but no shame in that game at all. The kids played hard,” Doubek said. “You get an early goal or you get a hot goaltender and things change. A few extra penalties in the second hurt our top skaters, but we played hard and I’m very proud of the way they finished the game.”

MacKenzie was tested early on, stopping back-to-back point blank chances from Sam Rumbles and Jared Kwiatkowski midway through the first period. He also caught a break with 20 seconds left in the frame when Zach Nash hit the post.

The Blue Devils took the lead with 4:52 left in the period when Eric Hillock took a pass from his linemate on the left side of the net and had a clear opening past Alpena goaltender Bret LeTourneau.

Chase Gamelin scored on the power-play just 3:51 into the second period to give Sault a 2-0 lead.

While the opening period saw quite a bit of physical play, the two teams were allowed to play on. That changed in the second period, as the Wildcats took three penalties in the first six minutes and were forced to go on the defensive against a Sault offense that was just beginning to pick up steam. Infractions to Kwiatkowski and Brad Lorenz early on left Sault with a 5-on-3 advantage for 41 seconds, but it was unable to capitalize.

Alpena got a 5-on-3 chance of its own for 43 seconds after a hooking penalty to Gamelin and a five minute checking from behind penalty and game disqualification to Kolbe Peller with 5:51 left in the frame. The Wildcats couldn’t take advantage however and the last 2:09 of the major penalty was more or less negated after Nash was sent off for interference with three minutes left.

Despite being shorthanded, Sault proved to be the aggressor on offense late in the period. Kyle TenEyck banged a shot off the crossbar with 1:30 left and a minute prior to that, LeTourneau made a stop on Gamelin at close range.

LeTourneau made 34 stops for the Wildcats and played an impressive game for Alpena despite being swarmed several times in the final two periods.

“Bret was solid the entire game, very focused. He didn’t let in a weak goal anywhere,” Doubek said. “The score could’ve have been a lot (more), especially at the end of the second period. He got bombarded in tight and was very solid pipe to pipe.”

A goal early in the third period would have helped Alpena get back into the game, but the Wildcats found themselves shorthanded again after Nash took a checking from behind penalty, which also kept him off the ice for an additional 10 minutes.

At the 2:49 mark, TenEyck powered his way from the blue line past Alpena defenders to the slot where he fired a shot past LeTourneau on the power-play to put Alpena in a 3-0 hole.

With 8:20 left in the frame, Willem Gauthier fired a shot at LeTourneau from the right side and his linemate Ryan Dalsky was there to bang in the rebound to put the Blue Devils head 4-0.

Alpena had a couple of power-play chances in the final frame, but couldn’t capitalize on either of them as the Blue Devils continued to control the offensive flow. After being outshot 13-11 in the first period, Sault outshot the Wildcats 27-13 over the last two frames.

“We try to play three lines most of the game and then some and we’ve got 5-6 D (defensemen)to try and stay fresh, so in the second and third period we get stronger and stronger offensively,” Ferroni said.

Alpena’s loss meant it was the final game for the Wildcats’ eight seniors-Nash, Rumbles, Kwiatkowski, LeTourneau, Lorenz, Emily Duncan, Ugis Skuja and Kam Russell-and Doubek praised the efforts of his senior class, which has had a big hand in leading the team in Doubek’s two seasons as coach.

“You get a group that wants it that bad, wants to play, wants to succeed, is willing to do just about anything and all the right things, it’s contagious,” Doubek said.