This game meant more, much more, than most regular-season battles. This was a chance for Grand Haven to prove it belonged on the same ice as the perennial powerhouse Sailors, and the Bucs did just that on Wednesday.
“This is our first time ever beating Shores, so this is a big deal,” said Buccaneers’ defenseman Tyler Ploeg, who scored both Grand Haven goals. “This game has been marked on our calendars since they beat us last year in the playoffs.”
In that contest, the Sailors throttled the Bucs, 5-0. That loss was particularly stinging to Grand Haven, which entered the game with just a single loss on its record.
“This win is huge,” said Bucs’ defenseman Will VerDuin, a team captain. “Since I got here as a freshman, we’ve been trying to build the program to be like Mona Shores. They’re a state powerhouse, and we want to get on that level.
“If you’re competing with Shores and Grand Rapids Catholic Central, you’re doing something right.”
The Bucs did plenty right on Wednesday. They started the first period off hot, sparked by VerDuin’s crushing hit on a Sailors’ forward just moments into the game.
Grand Haven threw several shots at Mona Shores goalie Nate Rabbitt, who stood tall to keep the game scoreless.
The Sailors withstood the Bucs’ early rally, then scored the game’s first goal 4 minutes into the contest when Austin Swiatek slid a puck toward Reed Hrynewich, who was streaking toward the front of the goal. The puck actually deflected off a Grand Haven defender’s stick and into the Bucs’ net.
Mona Shores controlled the remainder of the first period, but Bucs’ goalie Zach Kooi came up big to keep his team in the game.
“The first period, we had a pretty good jump the first five minutes, but then they took over and put it to us,” Bucs’ coach Dan Gadbois said.
The Bucs had a fantastic chance to tie the game early in the second period when a puck came out to Logan Pellegrom, who had an open net to shoot at. Instead, the puck hopped over his stick.
A few minutes later, Ploeg pounced on a loose puck during a Buccaneers’ power play and blazed a shot past Rabbitt to tie the game at 1-1.
Grand Haven looked to have grabbed a 2-1 lead late in the second, but the officials ruled that Grand Haven forward Ian Hibbard had intentionally directed the shot into the net with his skate. The goal was waved off.
The third period started with the teams still tied at 1-1, but that tie didn’t last long. Ploeg fired a shot past Rabbitt for a 2-1 lead five minutes into the period.
“Austin (Way) just fought for the puck, took it away from the kid twice, then passed it to me, and I had a clear shot,” Ploeg said. “This is awesome. These are my first two goals of the year.”
Kooi turned away every Mona Shores chance over the game’s final 10 minutes, and the Buccaneers’ unbeaten record remained intact after seven games.
Mona Shores was its own worst enemy late in the game, committing several penalties that kept the Sailors from being able to mount a comeback.
“I don’t think we’ve had a game this year that we’ve had less than 10 penalties,” coach Charlie Link said. “You can’t get any momentum going that way. Plus, Grand Haven played awesome.”
The Sailors finished with 11 penalties to Grand Haven’s five.
“The keys to the game on my board out there, No. 1 is discipline, written three times,” Gadbois said.
The Buccaneers’ coach was thrilled with the contributions he got from his defenders, especially Ploeg, who has been urged to shoot the puck more often by his coaches.
“Tyler has been playing very solid hockey, and it’s nice to see him get rewarded,” Gadbois said. “He takes care of his own end (defensively) first. He’s a very unselfish player.
“Will (VerDuin) was solid as a rock tonight,” Gadbois added. “The last couple games, he took some penalties he shouldn’t have. Tonight, he was solid. I don’t care if his name never appears in the scorebook for goals or assists.”
Gadbois didn’t downplay the significance of the win, but he did caution against letting his team get too high this early in the season.
“I’m 64, and this is the first (win over Mona Shores),” Gadbois said when asked how big this win was for his program. “But this is one game. When I get them in here tomorrow, this is history. We’re home against Grandville on Friday, then we have (Mona Shores) again next Wednesday. If we’re thinking about this win instead of focusing on those games, we’re going to get smoked.”
While he didn’t put the puck in the net, Grand Haven received a strong outing from Doug Zelenka, who was dangerous all night and drew several of Mona Shores’ 11 penalties.
The Bucs are now 3-0 in Tier 1 play. Mona Shores falls to 2-4 on the season.