Rhinelander’s Harlan Wojtuisk reacts after scoring a goal during a non-conference boys’ hockey game against Kingsford, Mich. at the Rhinelander Ice Arena Thursday, Feb. 8. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
2/8/2020 7:34:00 AM Hodags hold on, tack on 2 empty netters in 6-3 win over Kingsford
So many times this season, close games have not gone the Rhinelander High School boys' hockey team's way. Finally, on Thursday night, the skate was on the other foot.
The Hodags survived protecting a one-goal lead most of the third period and tacked on a couple of empty net goals in the final 75 seconds of regulation to defeat Kingsford, Mich. 6-3 at the Rhinelander Ice Arena.
Rhinelander (9-11-0) played short-handed after losing defenseman Harrison Shinners to an injury in pregame warmups. The team had to adjust on the fly and admittedly did not play its best hockey, according to coach M.J. Laggis, but still found a way to win.
"We pulled in together, won the hockey game and had some timely goals," he said. "That was a really big positive.
"It's a good thing when you're not playing your best hockey and you find a way to win. We did that tonight."
Harlan Wojtusik and Max Spaulding each scored twice for the Hodags. The two played a key role in the turning point of the game as the Hodags scored three times in the final 2 minutes, 22 seconds of the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.
Wojtusik tied the game on a shot from the point that went top shelf and the Hodags kept the pressure on from there. Danny Zuiker flipped the puck over the neutral zone to Leo Losch, who got behind the Kingsford defense and beat goal Evan Hedtke stick side on a breakaway with 43 seconds remaining in the period. Spaulding picked up a loose puck in a scramble in front of the net and flipped it up over Hedtke with seven seconds left to double the lead.
"That was a really good finish to that period," Laggis said. "We go up 3-2 and then instead of just hanging on, we made it 4-2 and got to the end of the period 4-2. That's a really good thing."
Reece Fortner scored twice for Kingsford, including a power play goal 2:10 into the third period that cut Rhinelander's lead to 4-3. From there, the Hodags dodged a couple of bullets as the Flivvers tried to score the equalizer.
A scrum occurred in front of the Rhinelander net with roughly 8:15 remaining in the third as Kingsford took a shot from the low slot and put it straight on sophomore goalie Garrett Kulhanek. Kulhanek was unable to secure the rebound and Kingsford tipped in the puck in the aftermath, but the whistle was blown and the goal nullified as the officials lost sight of the puck.
Roughly 30 seconds later, Kingsford rifled a pass from the point to a streaking Trey Bociek coming through the slot and his redirect attempt hit the bottom of the crossbar and caromed away.
Bociek had one more chance with 1:42 remaining that he blasted from the left point, but Kulhanek tipped it aside for one of his 22 saves in the victory.
"Nice for Garrett to have a nice game like that. He did some very good things. I was happy that he got a win," Laggis said.
Kingsford pulled Hedtke for an extra attacker with 1:26 remaining, but Conor Pequet found an empty net to make it 5-3 with 1:12 remaining. The Flivvers again pulled Hedtke on the ensuing faceoff but the Hodags took control of the puck and Wojtusik sealed it with his 30th goal of the season.
Wojtusik scored twice despite moving back to defense Thursday night to cover for the injured Shinners.
"That's the mark to me of a leader and that's why he's a captain for us," Laggis said. "When you tell him to play D, he's happy to do it. When you tell him to go score a goal, he goes and does it. He's that kind of a guy. He really does play for the front of the jersey. That's not a cliche. He plays for the team and tries to win. When he makes a mistake, he owns it and doesn't hang his head or pout about it. He's a great team player and he's done a world for us this year."
Spaulding got the Hodags on the board with a little good fortune as he scored a short-handed goal 7:06 into the opening period. He took a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle that hit Hedtke in the chest, caromed over Hedtke's head and into the back of the net. It proved to be the lone goal of the opening period.
Bociek tied the game for Kingsford 9:35 into the second period on a scramble in front of the Rhinelander net. Bociek chipped a puck past Kulhanek, off the inside of the left goalpost and in. Reece and Hunter Fortner worked a 2-on-1 breakaway to give the Flivvers the lead with 3:48 remaining in the second period as an extra pass from Hunter Fortner left Reece Fortner open on the back door for a tap in.
Kingsford narrowly outshot Rhinelander 25-24 in the contest.
In addition to Shinners, Spaulding left the game with injury for Rhinelander after he crashed into the boards after having a 1-on-2 chance snuffed out with just less than six minutes remaining in the game.
Rhinelander is back in action Tuesday night against Medford in a consolation game of the Great Northern Conference boys' hockey tournament.
The Hodags won at Medford 7-3 in a GNC game back in December, but the Raiders stunned the Hodags 5-4 in the championship game of the East/Merrill tournament last month, scoring twice in the final two minutes to steal the game.
"We'll try to work on beating Medford who really gave us a bitter loss there in Merrill. We've got to play good against them," Laggis said.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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