In this Feb. 20, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Jake Losch scores a goal during the Hodags WIAA regional final playoff game at Lakeland. The Hodags, a seven-seed, upset second-seeded Lakeland 3-1, a highlight in a season that saw Rhinelander go 12-14-0. Photo by Jeremy Mayo/River News.
In this Feb. 25, 2020 file photo, Rhinelander’s Harlan Wojtusik attempts to split a pair of Mosinee defenders during a WIAA sectional semifinal playoff game in Mosinee. Wojtusik led the Hodags with 34 goals scored during the 2019-20 season. Photo by Bob Mainhardt/River News.
3/28/2020 7:27:00 AM Team review: RHS boys' hockey:
Hodags finish strong, make playoff push
It's a sports to say it's not how a team starts that determines its overall success, rather how it finishes. But that saying certainly held true for the Rhinelander High School boys' hockey team during the 2019-20 season.
Though the Hodags dealt with adversity much of the season, tying for sixth-place in the eight-team Great Northern Conference and failing to finish above .500 for the first time in three seasons, Rhinelander got hot when it mattered at the end of the season.
The Hodags won three straight games at the end of the year as they finished 12-14-0. That included an upset over second-seeded Lakeland in the WIAA playoffs. Rhinelander nearly had a fourth straight win, falling to Mosinee 3-2 in overtime in the WIAA sectional semifinals.
"I can't say enough about us battling through adversity all year," coach M.J. Laggis said. "It started right in the second week of the season with guys missing practice, guys sick, guys injured. We had injuries all year long, guys ineligible. I don't think we had a full team at practice since somewhere in the middle of December. All I can say, from a coach's standpoint, and a team standpoint, is we had a core of guys that just continued to battle and fight through adversity. When we lost that home game to Antigo, you felt like we were done. When we lost the home game to Medford (in the GNC tournament), you felt like we were done. I kept preaching resilience and we kept working hard and working through it."
Here are five storylines from the recently completed season.
The Hodags had several lean stretches during the season. Take out back-to-back wins over Tomahawk during and after the Christmas break and the Hodags were 2-11 during a stretch between Dec. 5 and Jan. 21. Even though the team bounced back to win three of its next four games, a 2-0 home loss to Medford relegated the Hodags to the seventh-place game in the GNC tournament.
But the Hodags picked up a little momentum entering the final week of the regular season. Wins over East/Merrill and Tomahawk propelled the team into the WIAA tournament, where the squad had its two defining moments.
First was the playoff upset at Lakeland. The Hodags avenged a 7-2 loss to the T-Birds earlier in the season by jumping out to a 3-0 lead and hanging on for a 3-1 victory.
"For right now, for a few hours, we can just celebrate a great win. To be the seven-seed and beat the two-seed is a thrill," Laggis said afterward.
Rhinelander had its back against the wall, down 2-0 after two periods against Mosinee in the sectional semifinals, but got power play goals from Cal Laggis and Max Spaulding to force the game into overtime.
The Hodags' tournament run was dashed, however, when AJ Buenning scored on a breakaway with 57.1 seconds left in the extra session, moments after Rhinelander's Harlan Wojtusik was taken down on a 1-on-2 chance that the Hodags felt should have been an interference penalty.
"We got a huge playoff upset a week ago and we darn near pulled it off here tonight. I'm disappointed in the outcome, but I'm not disappointed in our effort," coach Laggis said afterward.
Outshoot, but outscored
The Hodags did not have trouble generating offense during the course of the season. Finishing scoring chances, however, was another story.
Rhinelander finished below .500 despite averaging 32.5 shots per game, and taking 206 more shots on goal than they allowed during the regular season. There were seven instances during the season where the Hodags outshot an opponent but ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
"It's common for us to outshoot a team and lose and it's very common for us to not give a lot of scoring chances, but really quality chances," coach Laggis said. "That's just something that we do. It's like we're really solid, we're really solid, we're really solid and then we just give up the ship and give up a great opportunity. We're trying hard not to do that, but that's just kind of the way it's rolling for us."
Part of Rhinelander's troubles stemmed from penalties. The team averaged a little more than 10 minutes of penalties per game and struggled on the penalty kill, fending off only 71.4% of opponents' power play chances. Teams were 86.0% on the kill against Rhinelander during the regular season.
Penalties were a sticking point for the team much of the season, so much so that the team held a special meeting to talk about the issue after taking 11 infractions for 30 minutes in a 3-1 loss to Sheboygan Dec. 27 at the Baraboo holiday tournament.
"Penalties are just our Achilles. If we have one of those games where we take three penalties throughout the game, we give ourselves a chance. When we get up in that four, five, six penalties, we're too thin to kill them and have anything left," coach Laggis following a 7-5 loss Feb. 4 at Mosinee in which the Indians were 3 of 4 on the power play against Rhinelander.
Top line mates Conor Pequet and Harlan Wojtusik dominated the stat sheet for the Hodags this year.
Wojtusik was by far the team's leader with 34 goals, but Pequet finished as the team's leading scorer, thanks to a team-best 32 assists. Pequet's 48 total points this season beat out Wojtusik by three.
Who skated with the top two varied as the team dealt with injuries and holes elsewhere. Senior Harrison Shinners started the season up front with the two before sophomore Joe Schneider found a niche with Pequet and Wojtusik. He finished the year with 10 goals and 12 assists but had to move back to defense toward the end of the year, which moved senior Max Spaulding up to the top line.
He finished the year with 11 goals and nine assists.
Brothers Jake and Leo Losch helped give Rhinelander a second line that was capable of putting pucks in the net. Jake Losch finished third on the team with 14 goals scored and added eight assists. Leo Losch had seven goals and eight helpers.
Senior Danny Zuiker and junior JC Adams were the leaders for the Hodags along the blue line. Zuiker was the team's top-scoring defenseman with 13 points on the season (one goal, 12 assists). Adams had five goals and six helpers.
In goal, senior Seth Stafford logged the bulk of the minutes in his fourth season starting between the pipes. He went 8-13-0 on the year with a 3.80 goals against average and a .852 save percentage.
Stafford was on point for Rhinelander in the playoffs with a 1.87 GAA and a .931 save percentage.
Assuming the Hodags can keep their core together they should fare pretty well next year. The biggest question mark, which coach Laggis alluded to during the banquet, is whether Pequet and Wojtusik stick around for their senior seasons or opt to go the junior hockey route, much like Abe Laggis did this past year.
Should those two return, the Hodags will have much of their scoring power from this year back, plus figure to get a shot in the arm with incoming players from the Rhinelander Ice Association's bantam hockey team, which finished third in the Class 3A state tournament earlier this month.
In goal, it will be between juniors-to-be Garrett Kulhanek and Caleb Shefveland to fill the void left by Stafford's departure.
Kulhanek was 3-1-0 in limited action this year with a 3.09 goals against average and a .875 save percentage. Shefveland was 1-0-0 with a 2.46 goals against average and a .857 save percentage.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce