Not many outsiders to the Grand Haven hockey program believed the Bucs had a chance to knock off the No. 2-ranked team in Division 2, Traverse City Central, on the Trojans’ home ice in their pre-regional contest on Wednesday.
Maybe the only people who believed were the ones that mattered the most — the Bucs’ players and coaches.
No. 10-ranked Grand Haven jumped out to an outstanding start, leading 3-1 after the first period, but saw the Trojans rally to tie the game in the third period.
But junior Jake Steggles’ goal with eight minutes remaining put the Bucs back on top and goalie Zach Kooi made sure the one-goal lead stood up in Grand Haven’s thrilling 5-4 victory.
“Our ability to win this type of game started (with our training) in the summer,” said Grand Haven coach Dan Gadbois. “That and our tough schedule. Facing that tough competition and losing doesn’t get much ink, it’s the honest truth, but it prepares you for opponents like we faced Wednesday. That’s different for Grand Haven. This time, the kids were ready.”
Grand Haven advances to Saturday’s regional final at Lawson Ice Arena at Western Michigan University to face either Portage Northern or Forest Hills Northern. The Bucs have defeated FHN, their conference rival, twice this season, but haven’t faced Portage Northern.
It was vital for Grand Haven to jump out to a quick start in a hostile environment at a packed house at Howe Ice Arena in Traverse City, and the Bucs did just that, as they received two first-period goals from senior Tom Zelenka, and another from senior Asa Pellegrom.
Grand Haven had a 4-2 lead in the second period on a goal from Patrick Ferris, but the Trojans soon proved why they were so highly ranked. They unleashed 17 shots on Kooi in the second period alone, with two slipping into the net to draw them to within one at 4-3 entering the third.
“They came out fired up in that second period and put it to us pretty good,” Gadbois said.
But to Grand Haven’s credit, the Bucs never buckled under the pressure, even after Traverse City Central tied the game at 4-4.
The Bucs had an answer in Steggles, who put his team up for good with 9 minutes to play.
“Watching the NHL, those guys are the best at crashing the net and putting it in, but it’s a little tougher at this level,” Gadbois said. “Zelenka shot one at the net, and Jake blazed right into the crease and picked up the puck like a pro and put it in. It was a tremendous effort on his part.”
Grand Haven still had to hold onto the lead for over 8 minutes, but Kooi played his best in the pressure-packed moments, making huge save after huge save to keep his team on top for good.
“I can’t say enough about Zach. He played the game of his life,” Gadbois said.
With the win, Grand Haven improves to 15-8-3 overall. The Bucs will now be in search of the program’s first ever-regional title.