Wildcats looking to topple Calumet in quarterfinals
ALPENA — A road game against an undefeated team with a chance to get a step closer to a state championship.
Chris Limback couldn’t have asked for a better postseason scenario.
“I like going on the road. I hope it gives us more fuel,” Limback said. “There’s no pressure on us at all.”
In their biggest game of the season, Limback’s Alpena Wildcats (5-11-1) will try to be road warriors and defeat Calumet in a Division 3 quarterfinal. The two teams will meet tonight at 6 p.m. at Lakeview Arena in Marquette.
The winner will move on to play either Chelsea or Riverview Gabriel Richard on Friday in the semifinals.
For Alpena, the task won’t be easy. As of two weeks ago, the Copper Kings (16-0-1) topped the Division 3 rankings and they boast a formidable offense that’s averaging better than six goals per game.
Team captain Dean Loukus, who scored twice to help Calumet beat Houghton in a regional final last week, leads the Copper Kings with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists). Jackson Reilei (19-18-37), Noah Jukuri (9-16-25) and Nolan Sturos (7-15-22) have also topped 20 points for the season.
In net, Aksel Lokus has been solid, allowing less than two goals per game. He made 31 saves in Calumet’s regional final win, including several key stops to help Calumet hold off Houghton.
“This is Hoosiers. This is a No. 1 and No. 16 seed. They’re undefeated. They’re probably going to have at least four or five all-state players, and they’re just a good team,” Limback said of the matchup. “But you still have to play the game.”
Saturday’s regional title was Alpena’s ninth in program history and it may be the most improbable. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic the Wildcats have dealt with just about everything on the way to a three-win regular season, including injuries, cancelled games and last-minute schedule changes.
But the playoffs are a chance to start anew, regardless of record, and the Wildcats are still standing as one of eight teams left in Division 3.
Thanks to timely scoring, solid goaltending, strong defensive play, and players accepting and understanding their roles on the team, the Wildcats are just a game away from their first semifinal since 2007.
“As a team, we’ve learned to build off each other. Not just the energy and attitude, but we’ve become the team that we knew we could be,” senior goaltender Collin Lightfoot said.
Limback has talked all season about how the Wildcats needed to learn how to win, especially when the team dropped several close games to begin the year.
But in the past couple weeks, they’ve seemed to find a formula that works, winning three of their last five games.
Having the coaches mix things up has helped too. During regionals, coaches shuffled the lines a little bit and the results were almost instant. Blaise Keller’s line with Ryan Ritter and Eli Gooselin, for example, played a big role in Saturday’s regional final win over Gaylord, accounting for three goals and four total points.
“They finally bought in and things just happened. We had a series in Traverse City where we didn’t win, but the kids said ‘Oh, we can play,’ and we grew from there,” Limback said. “It’s always easy to be on a team, but you have to be willing to do the little things. The kids are willing to do the little things like blocking shots and those are the things that add up.”
They may be considered an underdog, but the Wildcats have grown accustomed this season to overcoming the odds and they’re aiming to do it again tonight to keep their season alive.
“Everybody had us as an underdog (last week) and we just came out and played the game the way we know how to play,” Keller said. “Things are just starting to click for us.”