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Don't fear the tier

Duncan MacLean • Feb 23, 2017 at 12:05 AM

MUSKEGON — Tough schedules breed good hockey players, and good hockey players earn playoff bids.

That was the thinking behind the O-K Conference Tier 3 Grand Haven/Spring Lake co-op hockey team taking on Tier 2 Grand Rapids Christian on Thursday night at the Lakeshore Sports Centre, as the Bucs fell by a final tally of 5-1.

“We schedule tough to make us better. It was a great learning experience in the first period,” Grand Haven head coach Keegan Ferris said. “Grand Rapids Christian is a phenomenal team, I was happy with how we played tonight.”

The Bucs, who sit at second place in Tier 3 of the O-K Conference, opened play against the Eagles (second place Tier 2) behind the 8 ball, with GRCH lighting the lamp on their first shot.

Trouble possessing the puck, and a continuous defensive zone pressure by the Eagles didn’t give the Bucs a chance to even the score through the first 20 minutes.

With just over one minute remaining, the Eagles struck once again, netting their second goal on four shots in the first period. Grand Haven hit the first break trailing 2-0, hoping to fight their way back into the game.

“Just keep working, Grand Rapids Christian is a phenomenal team,” Ferris said of his first-break message. “Keep working, we are right in it, we just needed to tune up in the defensive zone and in front of the net.”

The second period highlighted one of the Bucs’ proven strengths over the course of this season, penalty-kill defense. The Eagles failed to capitalize on their first two power play opportunities thanks to quick stick work and heads up skating by the Bucs.

“It was just staying composed,” Ferris said of the kills. “They are a great puck-handling team, we stress keeping sticks in the passing lane.”

The defensive stops translated some life into the offensive effort, allowing them to control the puck and rip a few shots of their own.

“We gained that competitive edge that we didn’t have to start,” Ferris said.

Despite the turnaround, the Eagles were too much for Grand Haven, they netted two goals in the final minutes of the second period to start the third leading, 0-4. The Bucs did draw a power play of their own that stretched into the third, but could not convert.

Another penalty kill was the pick-me-up Grand Haven needed; Brandon Beeler broke the shutout scoring Grand Haven’s lone goal halfway through the final period, assisted by Lucas Underwood.

The Eagles would finally get their man-up goal as the third period wound down, bringing the game to its final tally of 5-1.

With one game remaining in the regular season, a matchup with the Bay Area Reps on Friday, the Bucs sit at 11-11 overall, and 8-3 in O-K Tier 3.

They journey has been a long one for the combined Laker and Buccaneer pucksters, who came together for the first time in June.

“The amount we have grown, it’s leaps and bounds,” Ferris said. “The biggest area of improvement is our constant work ethic. Being willing to go to work and join the fight, competing like maniacs and outworking the opponent.

“Our skating, passing, puck possession, all have room to grow, but the consistent improvement has been great.”

The Bucs hope that all the work put in over the summer, fall and winter will grant them a hefty playoff run, but their first hurdle is a big one.

Round one of their playoff journey goes through Rockford.

“They are another great, fast, puck handling team. We are once again just going to try and be disciplined and give every shift our all,” Ferris said of the Rams. “I’m a big believer that if you can skate with a team, anything is possible.

“We will try and take away the things they do well, squeak a few in and play great defense.”

The run could spell the end for nine seniors on the Grand Haven team.

“They are a huge chunk, they will be missed,” Ferris said. “We will be young next year, but we just have to keep pushing.”

With nine months of work and nine player’s careers on the line, the Bucs will not lack motivation to join the fight against Rockford next week.

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