Four Brice goals keep Houghton on top

HOUGHTON – It’s a dream held by Mites and Squirts throughout the Copper Country Junior Hockey Association: Win the Division 3 regional championship at MacInnes Student Ice Arena against the cross-canal rivals and maybe even be the hero.

Saturday, the Houghton Gremlins experienced that dream for the second straight time and junior forward Ray Brice put the cherry on top, recording four goals and an assist in a 5-2 victory over Hancock.

“It is extremely hard to win a regional here, any time. When you’re the favorite, it seems to be harder. Everyone’s gunning for you all season long. We had a few hiccups in the road, but we had a very solid season and to finish it up with the regional championship feels absolutely great and I’m really proud of the whole team,” Houghton coach Corey Markham said.

The Gremlins (22-5) advance to the state quarterfinals Wednesday night to face Sault Ste. Marie at Lakeview Arena in Marquette. They’ll get there on a bus, but Brice provided the fuel for the trip with a performance that was more grit than glamour but still one worth remembering.

“I knew I had to have a good game, but I didn’t think I’d step up that big. They just seemed to go in tonight and I was pretty pumped when I started seeing them pop in,” Brice said.

His first two goals helped the Gremlins break out of a dreary stalemate in the game’s first two periods. The first frame appeared headed back to the locker room scoreless until Connor Hannon hit the post with a shot and Brice followed by pushing the loose puck over the line for a power-play goal at 13:47.

Houghton followed with a late flurry, tilting the shot count 10-5 in its favor, a statistic that didn’t reflect the direction of play or Markham’s appraisal of his team’s performance.

“I didn’t think we were playing with the emotion and intensity we really needed to. I was not real happy with how we were playing after two periods. I thought we were capable of a lot more. We had a hard time getting them to get it into the next gear,” he said.

Houghton had more pep in the second period but no goals until Brice buried a feed from Casey Markham behind the net for the 2-0 goal at 13:06.

Gremlin goalie Jayson Wiitala stoned Alex Hill on a shorthanded 2-on-1 late in the period for Hancock’s best chance. Several others were blocked, producing a 21-9 count after 34 minutes that Hancock coach Dan Rouleau didn’t believe matched the chances his team was generating.

“Honestly, I thought it was a very, very evenly played hockey game. You look at how many shot blocks they had. You add them up as shots on goal and we probably outshoot them,” he said.

In the third, Brice wasted no time putting Hancock in deep trouble, taking another feed from behind the goal, this time from Jed Kallio, for his hat trick 59 seconds in. The play led to a shower of hats, and oddly enough, shoes from the Houghton faithful.

“He was getting to the hard areas,” coach Markham said. “He’s a tremendous player for us and we need to count on him.”

Hancock’s Hunter Kero maintained some suspense by scoring on a shorthanded breakway early in the third, but Kallio buried a loose rebound on the same power play for a 4-1 lead.

Brice added an insurance goal at 11:51 in what has been more his manner, a solo shorthanded breakaway.

Matthew Sanregret scored a late consolation goal but bigger consolation for the Bulldogs (15-13) may come from the fact that all but one player (Dylan Hanke) can come back for another shot next year.

“Their potential for next year, only losing one guy, is huge. But it all starts with how hard they work over the summer,” Rouleau said.

Though that one player, Hanke, will leave a mark.

“Losing Dyl is going to be a huge loss for us. You see him at the end of the game, still going. His last minute of play in high school hockey, going 110 percent. That’s the type of player he was. There’s some pretty big skates to fill, there,” Rouleau said.

Wiitala made 20 saves for Houghton, while Jacob Givens stopped 29 shots in defeat.

“We played real tentative tonight, especially early on and just not normally what we do. We got over it, we got through it, we got a win, which is obviously huge, and we got to move on,” coach Markham said.