The end of the line

Weary Wildcats fall to Houghton in quarterfinal

Alpena goaltender Cooper Black readies himself to stop a scoring attempt by Houghton’s Tucker Tapini during the second period of a Division 3 quarterfinal on Wednesday in Sault Ste. Marie.

SAULT STE. MARIE — The Alpena High School hockey team had too many obstacles to overcome on Wednesday.

Beset by injuries to key players in their biggest game of the year, weary from a long week of travel last week and unable to mount much of an offensive effort, the Wildcats’ season came to an end with a 4-1 loss to Houghton during a Division 3 quarterfinal at Sault Ste. Marie’s Big Bear Arena.

Justin Norkol scored twice and Jett Heinonen broke a 1-1 tie early in the third period to tip the game in the Gremlins’ favor and give them enough offense to secure a spot in Friday’s semifinals in Plymouth.

“It’s an absolute tremendous feeling. I’ve very proud of my group of kids. The work ethic on this team is phenomenal,” Houghton coach Corey Markham said. “We really do give a workman-like effort every day and that showed through.”

The Gremlins (22-5-1) have displayed a workman-like effort all season and did so again on Wednesday, controlling play for large stretches of time. During most of the first period and a long stretch in the third period, Houghton kept Alpena on the defensive by keeping the puck in the Wildcats’ zone.

It paid off as Houghton lit the lamp three times in the final frame, including the go-ahead goal with 14:31 left. Despite starting the third period on the penalty kill, the Gremlins overcame the setback and took the lead when the Wildcats couldn’t clear the puck of the zone. Heinonen took advantage, corralling the puck and beating Alpena goaltender Cooper Black up high.

After winning their first regional championship since 2007 on Saturday, the Wildcats (23-5-1) looked out of sorts for long stretches of play as they were unable to mount any kind of sustained offensive attack.

Alpena was dealt further blows when Mitch Agius went out with an injury in the first period and Owen Limback and Charlie Halleck went off with injuries In the second period and didn’t return.

At this point, they just looked fresh,” Alpena coach Chris Limback said of Houghton. “You could see the three trips to Gaylord took its toll on us. We were just tired tonight. We still battled, it was 1-1 going into the third, the bad part was is we had a depleted roster with two injuries. We tried to do the best we could.”

“Especially in the third period, you could just see we ran out of gas. Owen and Charlie were two of the five guys who were going to be on the power play to start the third period and then all of a sudden we started to scramble.”

Halleck scored Alpena’s only goal and tied the game 1-1 with 2:31 left in the second period with assists from Limback and Colby Plowman. With the Wildcats crashing the net, Halleck slipped the puck by Houghton goaltender Jimmy Pietila, giving Alpena a momentum boost it desperately needed.

Alpena started the final frame on the power-play, but couldn’t muster much offense against the Gremlins. Alpena was ultimately 0-for-6 on the power-play, while the Gremlins connected twice with the man advantage.

“When you hustle non-stop, you’re going to get some weird bounces, you’re going to get some puck luck and that’s what they did tonight,” Limback said. “We were on our heels and not on our toes and they’ll be a tough team to knock out in Plymouth.”

Seth Francois scored on the power-play with 9:44 to go, extending Houghton’s lead to 3-1. Norkol found the back of the net for the second time with 1:54 remaining.

Norkol put Houghton on the board first in Wednesday’s contest, connecting on the power play with a shot from just inside the blue line on a screen with 9:56 left in the opening frame.

Norkol’s shot one of the first to test Black, who made several big stops to keep Alpena in the game throughout the course of the night. With about nine and a half minutes left in the second period, Black skated to the high slot to clear the puck and he stopped a 2-on-1 chance a short while later.

Later in the frame, Black stopped Brad Gauthier on a shot in front and stopped a streaking PJ Donnelly as time expired in the second period.

The loss brought an end to one of Alpena’s best seasons in program history, but Limback was extremely proud of what the Wildcats accomplished. Alpena won the Big North Conference title with a 9-1 conference record, tied a program record for wins and won its first regional title in 12 years.

“Just an incredible run. What we accomplished this year, the teams we battled all year, you couldn’t have (drawn) up a better year,” Limback said. “We would have liked to have one, but tonight just wasn’t our night.”