Rhinelander’s Danny Zuiker (4) celebrates with teammates Abe Laggis, left, Sam Tjugum (15) and Freddy Wisner (16) after scoring a goal during the third period of a Great Northern Conference boys’ hockey game against Waupaca at the Waupaca Expo Center Saturday, Dec. 2. Zuiker’s first career varsity goal proved to be the difference as the Hodags defeated the Comets 4-3. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
12/5/2017 7:30:00 AM Hodags down Waupaca 4-3
Zuiker scores game-winner with 3:02 remaining
WAUPACA - A Rhinelander High School boys' hockey team that lost a number of close games last season is learning on the go this year and reversing that trend.
The Hodags picked up their third straight one-goal win Saturday, and opened the Great Northern Conference season with a road victory, defeating the Comets 4-3 at the Waupaca Expo Center.
Danny Zuiker buried the game-winner on a blast from the right point with 3:02 remaining after the Hodags saw a 3-0 second-period lead evaporate.
"We took a big step forward tonight when we played that way at the end," said Hodag coach M.J. Laggis, whose team is off to a 3-0-0 start. "I've just seen a lot of kids grow up and get a lot stronger. We're emerging as the kind of team I think we can be. We've definitely got to clean some things up, but I'm proud of us."
Waupaca tied the game with exactly 4:00 to play as Eli Bartel tipped in a Bruce Sternweis shot from the blue line, but Zuiker, a sophomore defenseman, responded with his first career varsity goal.
"What a way to get your first high school goal, a game-winner at Waupaca," Laggis said.
Zuiker nearly scored his first earlier in the contest, but teammate Harlan Wojtusik redirected Zuiker's shot from the point to put Rhinelander up 3-0 8:02 into the second period.
The Hodags were flying high at that juncture, but momentum swung back Waupaca's way moments later.
Seconds after a Max Spaulding cross-checking penalty expired, Jack Erspamer scored from the right faceoff circle. Erspamer scored again on the power play with 2:22 left in the second on a wraparound effort that beat goalie Seth Stafford.
"Our penalty kill is one of those kills that is good right 'til the end and then we give it up at the end, I feel like," Laggis said. "We've got to get a lot better on the kill. It starts with our forecheck in neutral ice on the kill. Neutral ice is huge for us on the kill. Once a team sets it up, that's not our game. We've got to get more aggressive in the D zone on loose pucks, we've got to stay out of the box to begin with and in neutral ice we've got to have more takeaways."
The Hodags killed off a 5-on-3 power play early in the third, but Waupaca tied the game on the shift following a timeout with 4:38 remaining.
Laggis said the Hodags were unfazed by the development.
"Instead of our kids collapsing, the captains on the bench were screaming about making the next play," he said. "Not me doing it, for a change, but we've got a captain on the bench in Cole Spaulding telling everyone what we're going to do, and a shift later we pop one. It's a team effort."
Rhinelander got on the board late in the first period as Freddy Wisner won a scrum for the puck along the boards in the Hodags defensive zone and popped it out to Ethan Pequet, who skated in on a breakaway and beat Waupaca goalie Brett Behrens top shelf to notch his first varsity goal.
Wojtusik got free on a breakaway roughly five minutes into the second. Behrens stopped the initial shot, but left the rebound sitting right on the goal line and Wojtusik tapped it in.
"Harlan Wojtusik tacks two on tonight, excellent goals," Laggis said. "I thought that line of Abe (Laggis), Bridger (Flory) and Harlan played outstanding, so did the line of Freddy Wisner, Cole Spaulding and Conor Pequet."
Rhinelander outshot Waupaca 23-15 in the contest and limited the Comets to only two shots on goal in the third period.
"Our defensemen have improved so much since game one, it's unreal," Laggis said, noting the play of all five blue liners - Zuiker, Matthias Schneider, Sam Tjugum, JC Adams and Alex Hedberg. "Seth Stafford made a couple of big saves down the stretch tonight. He had a really good game."
Prior to the season, Laggis said he would like to see the Hodags finish in the top three of the Great Northern Conference, beating a Waupaca team that finished third in the GNC a season ago is a great way to start that journey.
"There's just going to be a lot of games like tonight in the conference," Laggis said. "I know (Northland) Pines is a big clip ahead and Antigo is still pretty darn strong, but there's a lot of close teams and it's going to be who does the little things right on any given night. Tonight we did enough."
The Hodags travel to Mosinee tonight and return home for a non-conference contest against Green Bay United on Friday.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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