Sault hands Gremlins gut-wrenching defeat

MARQUETTE – The Houghton High School hockey team had the shots. It had the scoring chances. The opportunities were plenty.

The Gremlins had the size, speed and talent advantage Wednesday at Lakeview Arena in Marquette against Sault Area High School.

What Houghton didn’t have in the MHSAA Division 3 state quarterfinal were the goals necessary to extend its season, however.

“I thought we controlled play for the great majority of the game, out-chanced them, out-shot them,” HHS coach Corey Markham said. “Everything but on the scoreboard.”

Sault Ste. Marie got the first goal, Houghton nabbed the second and the third went to the Sault with 27 seconds left in regulation to defeat the Gremlins 2-1 and advance to play Monroe St. Mary Catholic at 11 a.m. on Friday in a Div. 3 state semifinal at Compuware Arena in Plymouth.

A victory Friday would return the Sault to the state championship for the second year in a row to face either Farmington – which upset defending champ Cranbrook on Wednesday – or Grand Rapids Catholic Central, which needed six overtimes to advance past Flint Powers Catholic.

“It seems like we get goals when we need them and tonight was no different,” Blue Devils coach John Ferroni said.

“We knew we were going to have to come in here and steal it, and we stole it.”

Sault senior forward Blake Mastaw scored the game winner in the final minute of play with assists from senior defenseman Justin DeLisle and senior forward Willem Gauthier.

At 15:06 of the second period, it was Mastaw and DeLisle feeding Sault sophomore forward Abby Roque for a redirect on the power play to give the Blue Devils a 1-0 lead.

Houghton controlled the puck much of the night, but the final minute saw the Sault gain possession in what Mastaw called a “crazy” and “hectic” sequence.

“We were just trying to get pucks to the net and thankfully, I don’t even know how Will got me the puck and I don’t know how it went in,” Mastaw said. “I’m glad it did. That’s all I can really say.”

On Dec. 27, the Sault fell 8-0 to Houghton at the MacInnes Holiday Classic in the Copper Country, but the Blue Devils were without both of Wednesday’s goal scorers in the defeat – Mastaw and Roque. It was the last time the Sault lost, going 15-0-2 to close out the regular season.

Wednesday’s showdown at Lakeview that saw the Gremlins out-shoot the Blue Devils 19-15 was also a rematch of the 2013 Div. 3 state quarterfinals in which Houghton fell 4-1.

The one-goal loss Wednesday left the Gremlins in tears.

“It’s just a completely empty feeling right now,” Markham said. “It just hurts so bad, but I’m really, really proud of our effort.

“They did absolutely everything they needed to win, except put the puck in the back of the net. We worked so hard and gave every bit of effort and again, territorially, I thought we controlled it. We had more chances and it was just one of those nights the puck didn’t find the back of the net and it just hurts.”

Houghton senior forward Raymond Brice tied the game at 1-1 with an assist from junior defenseman Riley McKay at 10:06 of the third period on a breakaway, clanging the puck off the right post and into the back of the net.

It was one of many breakaways for Brice, only this one didn’t end with a loud groan from the Houghton fans or roar from the Sault fans because of a save by Blue Devils senior netminder Nickolas McKenzie.

McKenzie, who finished with 18 saves, stoned Houghton senior forward Casey Markham early in the first period with a stick save after he tried to beat the Devil on the left side.

In the second, McKenzie had to make a sprawling save on an attack by Casey Markham and senior forward Connor Hannon that resulted from a slow line change by the Sault.

Houghton had another golden chance moments later in transition, but McKenzie stood his ground in the crease, flipped a Gremlin attacker over him and kept the puck out of the net.

McKenzie had to make two more saves before Roque’s goal, including on a 3-on-2 rush for the Gremlins six minutes into the period and during the power play that led to Roque’s goal.

Twice on the Sault advantage Brice got short handed breakaways with McKenzie making a save one-on-one against Brice on the first break. The Sault defense caught Brice before he could get a shot off on the second.

“(McKenzie) made some big saves, absolutely he made some big saves and we missed the net other times,” Corey Markham said. “We had good opportunities. There would be a scramble and the puck would just get knocked off our stick.

“It just all accumulated and we couldn’t put the puck in the back of the net unfortunately.”

McKenzie’s biggest stop in the third came with 11:11 to play – a pad save on a point-blank rebound attempt for Houghton.

It happened to be one of the few rebounds Ferroni said he remembers McKenzie giving up all night and one of the few his defense didn’t clean up.

Yet, McKenzie made the save, no sweat.

“He’s as cool as a cucumber out there,” Ferroni said. “I’ve never seen that kid get rattled in three years. He’s a gamer. What do you say? When guys come out and play like that year after year, game after game, and hold teams down that we’ve played on our schedule, the kid’s a gamer.”