Wildcats ready for quarterfinal showdown with UP power Houghton

News Photo by Jonny Zawacki Alpena’s Alex Cosbitt (16), Blaise Keller (17), Keegan Mathews (19) and Owen Limback celebrate after the Wildcats scored a goal in Saturday’s regional championship game against Cheboygan at the Otsego County SportsPlex in Gaylord. The Wildcats travel to Sault Ste. Marie tonight for a quarterfinal matchup against Houghton.

When Alpena High School hockey head coach Chris Limback prepared the schedule for this upcoming season, he did so with the goal of challenging his team all season, so the Wildcats would be prepared for games like the one they’ll play Wednesday.

After playing eight games against teams ranked across all three divisions in the state during the season, the Wildcats are ready for what will be one of their biggest challenges to date in their biggest game of the season.

Alpena faces off with Upper Peninsula power Houghton tonight at 7 p.m. at the Big Bear Ice Arena in Sault Ste. Marie in a Division 3 quarterfinal.

“The game we wanted to get to was the one with the Copper Country and here we are. We know that it’s going to be a great challenge,” Limback said. “Houghton is a quality team and we know we haven’t played great and we’re going to have to play a lot better than what we have in our last few games and give it our all.”

Both teams had different journeys to get to Wednesday’s matchup.

The Wildcats were the favorites in their region and put together three steady performances, defeating Sault, Gaylord and Cheboygan to win their first regional championship in 12 years.

Alpena allowed just one goal in the three games and not many players have been able to solve goaltender Cooper Black who stopped 54 of 55 shots in the regional tournament and has allowed just 20 goals in the 25 games he has started, turning away 563 shots during the season.

Like the rest of the Wildcats, Black will be in for one of his toughest challenges to date as Alpena takes on a Houghton team that shut out Painesdale-Jeffers 9-0 and pulled off an upset, knocking off rival Calumet 3-2.

Calumet was a team some had thought would contend for a state title this year, but the Gremlins jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Saturday’s regional championship game and despite a late surge from the Copper Kings in the final seconds of the game, Houghton was able to hold on and win.

As challenging as Alpena’s schedule has been, the Gremlins have also been tested.

Houghton’s 21-5-1 record is impressive based on the level of competition it has played.

Houghton has played in 11 games against some of the top ranked teams across all three divisions and have beaten and challenged some of the best teams in the state.

The Gremlins are a balanced group led by a trio of goal scorers and playmakers in Brendan Erickson, Brad Gauthier and PJ Donnelly. The three have combined for 95 points on the season.

Houghton also has eight other members of the team that have scored at least six goals, including Niko Rajala who is the fourth and final Gremlin to have double-digit goals with 11. Kevin Bostwick leads the team with 25 assists and along with Erickson, Gauthier, Donnelly, Rajala and Bostwick, Ty Halonen rounds out the large list of Houghton playmakers to record 20 points or more so far this season.

The Wildcats will need to continue to rely on their top playmakers as the duo of Kyle VanDusen and Colby Plowman have each collected 42 points apiece this year.

VanDusen leads Alpena with 28 goals and 14 assists, while Plowman has lit the lamp 19 times and dished out 23 helpers.

The only Wildcat with double-digit goals is Alex Cosbitt who has 10.

Owen Limback has 10 assists and is valued by his teammates for his ability to create plays while giving the Wildcats a veteran presence on the blue line.

Alpena will be looking to its secondary players for more solid play as the second and third lines have done their job on the ice, but may be needed to create more scoring opportunities if the Wildcats want to put pressure on Houghton.

The X-factor in the game will be Black who is good enough between the pipes to take over and win a game.

Black has allowed just seven goals in his last 11 games and is as calm and as confident as ever in net. Black has allowed just three goals once in a game this season and hasn’t allowed any more than three in any one game. Black leads the state in save percentage (.966), goals against (0.81) and shutouts (9).

“It’s an amazing feeling to have Cooper back there. We arguably have one of the best goalies in the state,” Limback said. “He’s going to have to be great again, but these are games that a goalie can win and I hope he’s fired up for it because it’s going to be a great test for him, myself and the rest of the team.”

The last time Alpena played in a quarterfinal game in 2006-07, the Wildcats were victorious, defeating Davison 3-2 in an overtime thriller.

Limback is excited to be back coaching in another quarterfinal game with a group of hockey players he’s been with and seen develop over the years and he hopes history repeats itself Wednesday.

A win Wednesday for Alpena would give the Wildcats a 13th straight win as well as a program record 24th win of the season. It would also move them to the final four and a semifinal game Friday at 11 a.m. in Plymouth against the winner of Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard and Riverview Gabriel Richard.

“It’s hard to believe when you think about it, we’re one game away and we’ve faced teams like this all year long so we’re ready,” Limback said. “We just have to come out and be great. It’s exciting, one night to give it all you got to get to the final four so it’s an amazing place to be in right now.”