A first round victory
Strong third period propels Wildcats to win over Cheboygan
Playoff hockey and all the nerves that come with it were on full display Wednesday.
Despite the Alpena High hockey team being as close to full strength as it has been all year, it took a while for the Wildcats to shake those first game jitters and settle in.
Alpena was tested, but passed it’s first round test thanks to a big third period as the Wildcats (11-13-2) skated to a 4-1 victory over Cheboygan (8-17) in a Division 3 first round regional matchup at Northern Lights Arena.
“I thought Cheboygan played well tonight. The first game of the playoffs, that was my one concern, the nerves and the first game is always the hardest,” Alpena coach Chris Limback said. “With our inexperience, I was worried about that and it showed, we struggled at times out there tonight and that’s why it was such a barn burner.”
The Wildcats were fortunate to be close to full strength because the Chiefs came out and gave Alpena all it could handle in the first two periods.
Cheboygan thought it opened the scoring six minutes into the game, but the goal was waved off as the whistle was blown before the puck went into the Alpena net.
The Wildcats killed off a pair of penalties midway through the period and caught a break, cashing in on their first power play chance of the night as Tanner Orban slammed home a rebound. Evan Kraenzlein fired a shot on net from the point and Cheboygan goalie Scott Pavwoski made the initial stop and got a piece of an Anden Marceau shot, but the second chance landed on the stick of Orban and he shoved it in for the games first goal to give Alpena a 1-0 lead after one period.
“Specialty teams are the key going down the stretch. I think there are some things that we could still do on the power play, because we still panic at times and we can’t just throw the puck away blindly,” Limback said. “We need to make the play and get our opponents moving. I thought at times tonight we panicked and that has to do with our lack of experience and we can grow and get better.”
Cheboygan picked up its play in the second period and had plenty of scoring opportunities early, but Colin Lightfoot made a pair of big saves on breakaway chances to preserve the lead.
The Chiefs continued to apply pressure and finally got the puck past Lightfoot on a puck he never saw as former Alpena native Ethan Lindle sent a shot on net from just inside the blue line that made its way past a crowd of skates and Lightfoot as Cheboygan tied the game 1-1 eight minutes into the middle frame.
The Wildcats responded and got a key goal with 3:41 left in the second when Orban outworked everyone for his second goal as he picked up another rebound, skated around a pair of Chief defenders and Pavwoski to find the back of the net and give Alpena a 2-1 advantage after two periods.
“I was glad that we got that second goal to get that lead, I thought that was a crucial part of the game because it helped us relax a little bit and then the third period, we got a couple good breaks and it gave us some breathing room,” Limback said.
A strong third period proved to be the difference and special teams was key for the Wildcats as they took a a 3-1 lead just over three minutes into the period as Marceau scored a shorthanded goal on rebound shot off the stick of Blaise Keller to give Alpena a two-goal advantage.
Just over a minute later, the Wildcats caught another break when Mitch Agius sent a wrist shot flying from the blue line that made its way past a group of skaters and over the left shoulder of Pavwoski and Alpena took an all important 4-1 lead and one they held on to win by, despite a chippy final four minutes of play as the Chiefs grew frustrated and penalties were given to each side despite Alpena doing a good job keeping its poise in the final minutes.
“It was nice have that 4-1 lead, knowing we could relax a little bit and the game was in our hands as long as we played smart,” Limback said. “I thought the refs did a great job. They made the calls and they said maybe they should have called things earlier, but I thought they did a great job not letting the game get out of control. The one thing in playoff hockey, it’s tough when you get up three or four and it would be no different if we were down by that many, I’m sure we wouldn’t be angels out there either. It’s one of those tough times. You want the kids to be smart, make good decisions and at the end of the day it’s just a game and you do the best job you can do while you’re on the ice, but keep it within the rules.”
Alpena advances to Saturday’s regional semifinal game against the Gaylord Blue Devils at 7 p.m. at Northern Lights Arena.