The motivation for 16 seniors on the Grand Haven varsity hockey team to win their final home game at Edge Ice Arena wasn't enough to spark the Bucs to accomplish the feat against rival Rockford.
Instead, the two programs again are fit to be tied.
The Bucs and Rams played to a 3-3 tie Wednesday evening, marking the third time in four meetings over the past two seasons that they've settled for a draw.
"We really wanted to win this one, because this is our last home game for 16 out of 22 of us on this team," said senior defenseman Tyler Ploeg, who helped the Bucs jump out a 2-0 lead with his first-period goal. "I really wish we could have pulled it out, but a tie is good too because Rockford is a really good team. It's definitely better than a loss."
The single point for a tie secured the Bucs (14-8-3 overall) a second-place finish in the O-K Tier I Conference behind league champion Mona Shores.
"I'm really pleased with my team and the effort they gave tonight," said Grand Haven coach Dan Gadbois. "We've got 22 players and everyone got in. Everyone contributed. I started our first line with (Ryan) Christiansen, Frenchie (Andrew LaFrance), and Nick Vieau. They've never complained throughout the year, but a cold drink gets more ice time than those guys. But they're great kids."
With their second-leading goal scorer, senior Ian Hibbard, out due to a game misconduct suspension, the Bucs needed other players to step up offensively and early on, they answered the bell. Senior Patrick Ferris ignited the effort as he gained control of the puck deep in Rockford's zone, drew Rams' goalie Todd Millar out of his crouch and fed a pass across the crease to a charging James Dyksterhouse, who deposited the puck into the net for a 1-0 lead.
The Bucs lit the lamp again just 3 minutes later, as Ploeg swallowed up an ill-advised pass at center ice, and simply spun and barreled through a pair of Rams' players to find an open zone toward the net.
"The first guy, I dumped the puck behind him and the other kid was trying to hit me, so I spun off with one hand on the stick and somehow kept the puck," Ploeg said. "When I got open, I saw there was a wide-open zone ahead of me and I'm thinking I gotta shoot the puck. It hit the post and went in.
"I was surprised. It was like, ’Wow, how did I manage to keep the puck like that?' It was a lucky play."
The luck shifted from Grand Haven to Rockford just 30 seconds later, as a slapper from the blue line was re-directed by the Rams' Blake Erhart, sending it right through the legs of Bucs' goalie Mark Nalley.
"I told the kids not to beat themselves up over that one. There's nothing you can do," Gadbois said.
The Bucs' typically sound defense was somewhat suspect on a Rockford power play goal with 8:15 in the second period, as a brief lapse allowed the Rams' Trevor Mills to blast a slap shot past Nally to tie the contest at 2-2.
The Rams controlled most of the period by frustrating the Bucs with their style of play.
"They were dumping the puck every time they were crossing the red line, so the defense continually has to turn around and go get the puck," Ploeg said. "They were always trying to pressure us full-on, and that wears the defense down."
Grand Haven appeared to have solved its issues early in the third, as junior Hayden Modaff cleared up a rebound with a powerful blast past Millar for his sixth goal of the season. Assists were awarded to Asa Pellegrom and James Calkins.
But the Bucs' feel-good vibes from Modaff's goal lasted all of about 20 seconds, as the Rams found an equalizer again with an unassisted goal by Jacob Smyth.
"They threw it at the net and no one picked it up," Ploeg said. "They outnumbered us."
Rockford had a golden opportunity to strike again in regulation, as it went on the power play with 2 1/2 minutes to play. Its closest call came with 2 minutes to go, as a top-shelf slapper dinged the post. But Grand Haven's penalty kill tightened up the rest of the way, led by senior defenseman Hayden Gerwig.
"Ploeg and Gerwig are our twin towers out there," Gadbois said. "Gerwig was everywhere. He was blocking shots. He really stepped up on defense."
Rockford was the aggressor in the extra session, as it flung a few darts at Nally, but the Bucs' netminder kept his composure. He finished with 20 saves, while the Bucs fired 19 shots at Millar.
Now with the postseason upon them, Grand Haven enjoys a first-round bye in the Division 2 pre-regionals and must play a waiting game before learning who their next opponent will be.
The Bucs already have a pretty firm idea, however, that they'll be traveling north to face No. 2-ranked Traverse City Central next Wednesday.
"On paper, they're the favorite (against Grand Rapids West Catholic)," said Gadbois. "I saw them play Mona Shores on Saturday and (TC Central) won 4-1."
Ploeg said the Bucs' large group of seniors will have to play like their backs are against the wall if they hope to keep their season alive.
"All season long we've been there for each other and picked each other up no matter what," he said. "From the bottom line to the top line guys, everyone knows this is our last shot to win, so we need to give everything we've got."