Gremlin hockey halted by Devils

MARQUETTE – The Houghton Gremlins ran into a hot goaltender Wednesday night, dropping a 4-1 hockey decision to the Sault Ste. Marie Blue Devils in a Division 3 state quarterfinal contest at Lakeview Arena.

Junior Nickolas McKenzie, who didn’t allow any goals in three regional playoff games, finally gave one up to junior forward Casey Markham five minutes, 17 seconds into the third period of Wednesday’s match-up.

The victory sends the Blue Devils (21-8) to Friday’s semifinals at Plymouth, where they’ll face Flint Powers (22-5-1) Friday at 2:30 p.m. The Gremlins finished 22-6.

Markham scored from the doorstep just 16 seconds after Sault gained a three-goal advantage on junior forward Chris Hazen’s backhanded shot, also from point-blank range.

“Sault played a real strong game,” said Houghton coach Corey Markham. “They did a very good job getting the puck to the net.”

The Gremlins nearly added a shorthanded tally on a breakaway midway through the third period. A shot by sophomore defensemen Tristan Foltz, however, hit the pipe.

“They tried to catch me off guard, but my friend (the pipe) helped me out,” said McKenzie.

Junior forward Willem Gauthier ended the scoring with an empty-net goal with 52 seconds left to play.

Senior forward Eric Hillock scored Sault’s first goal on a slapshot from the left point 6:22 into the second stanza. Gauthier added a one-timer from the high slot 4:20 later, giving the Blue Devils a two-goal cushion.

“Anytime you score the first goal in a playoff game, it’s huge,” said Sault coach John Ferroni. “It seems like when we do score, we score in bunches. This was pretty similar to our game with them at Christmas time (a 6-3 Sault victory in the MacInnes Holiday Classic Dec. 27). This was basically a one-goal game halfway through. Houghton kept coming at us. They have a nice, young team.”

Sault had several scoring chances in the last three minutes of the opening period.

During that span, Houghton’s sophomore goaltender Jayson Wiitala made a pair of stick saves and iced the puck moments after four Sault players stormed the net in search of a rebound shot.

“Our scouting report on them told us to shoot high and crash the net for rebounds, but their goaltender stood tall for the first 1 1/2 periods,” said Ferroni. “We went top-shelf on both goals in the second period, and we needed those. He (Wiitala) didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think any other goaltender would have stopped those.”

Houghton, despite being outshot 10-5, kept the Blue Devils scoreless in the opening frame.

“They had a few more opportunities then we did in the first period,” said coach Markham. “We felt good going into the locker room with a scoreless tie. We felt we had some momentum, but it didn’t work out that way. We just didn’t convert on the opportunities we had.”

Wiitala stopped 29 shots for the Gremlins, who were outshot 33-18. McKenzie had 17 saves.

“I thought our goaltender did an excellent job,” said coach Markham. “He kept us in the game. It’s always disappointing to lose a game like this, but we had an awesome season. We’re proud of what we accomplished this year.”