“They handled it like pros”
by Than Acuff
After dominating the regular season, the WEHA Wolverines fell short of winning the league playoff title, losing the championship game 3-2 in overtime to Centaurus.
The Wolverines entered the post season with targets on their backs as the number one seed, and while confidence was high, the team remained diligent during workouts to make sure they were ready both physically and mentally.
“We refined some things, the kids were skating well and working well and fostering teamwork and chemistry,” says coach Joey Otsuka.
They opened the playoffs against the number four seed, Heritage on Saturday, March 5. The Wolverines beat Heritage twice during the regular season but the post season is a different ball of wax and the biggest challenge for the Wolverines was nerves.
“It was very nervous hockey,” says Otsuka. “They were gripping their sticks so tightly.”
Gus Hensley scored at the end of the first period to put the Wolverines up 1-0 and Cole Frazier added a second goal midway through the second period, but Heritage took advantage of two of their many power play situations throughout the game to tie it up four minutes into the third period.
One minute later the Wolverines were still in a penalty kill situation, but Tristan Spezze broke the tie with a shorthanded goal only to have Heritage come back a minute later to score another powerplay goal and tie the game 3-3.
Despite the Wolverines dominating play up and down the ice they just couldn’t shake Heritage, but when Lucas Solanik scored off an assist from Danny Stoneberg, the pressure valve opened.
“That goal felt great on the bench,” says Otsuka. “Everyone collectively exhaled.”
With nerves finally abated, the Wolverines maintained their dominance of play and held on to win the opening playoff game 4-3 and advance to the championship for the second year in a row.
“It was okay, I liked some things that I saw,” says Otsuka. “We won. It wasn’t pretty, but the kids felt much better with the win.”
The Wolverines took the ice on Sunday, March 6 against Centaurus with the title on the line. They handled Centaurus rather easily during the regular season, beating them 6-1, but Otsuka was far from comfortable and made sure to keep his players on point.
“It’s a classic trap game,” says Otsuka. “We know what we do, we know what we need to do. Keep focused on the way we play and how we score goals.”
Unfortunately, penalties, some of which were considered highly questionably, disrupted the Wolverines play, especially toward the end of the game. Making matters worse, they lost two players during the course of the game.
“We were shorthanded for at least 15 or 16 minutes of the game,” says Otsuka.
After a scoreless first period, Centaurus struck first four minutes into the second period. The Wolverines responded five minutes later as Colby Archuleta scored off an assist from Cole Frazier but Centaurus scored once again to take a 2-1 lead into the third period.
Three minutes into the third period Archuleta converted on a penalty shot, tying the game, and the Wolverines continued to kill off penalties, including one five-minute stretch, to force the game into overtime.
Overtime is played in a four-on-four format and the Wolverines opened with 30 seconds left on a previous penalty leaving them three players on the ice to start.
“It’s terrible because there’s just so much open ice for their four players,” says Otsuka.
After surviving that, the Wolverines were hit with a holding penalty and this time Centaurus converted to score the game winner leaving the Wolverines one goal shy of a title for the second year in a row.
“After the game I said, ‘We have a state tournament coming up, what do you want to do?’,” says Otsuka. “They said, ‘We want to get back on the ice.’ Everyone in the locker room was completely on board. They handled it like pros.”
The Wolverines will head to the Front Range March 11-13 for the state tournament and have four games against Littleton, Boulder, Arvada and Ranch.
“They’re tough games,” says Otsuka. “Right now I’m feeling really positive. I think we’ll fare pretty well but we will see.”