WELLS - The Escanaba Eskymos showed just how well they can play without their leading scorer on Tuesday night in their pre-regional semifinal against Negaunee.
Not because they wanted to. The situation was forced on Escanaba when junior forward Levi Wunder took a knee-on-knee collision early in the first period. He left the ice and did not return.
The Eskymos' role players stepped up and in rapid succession later in the period and lifted Escanaba to a 3-0 victory.
Negaunee forward Michael Farley battles with Charlie Zuidema of Escanaba for the puck during Tuesday night’s pre-regional hockey game at Wells Sports Complex. Escanaba won 3-0. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Keith Shelton)
The Miners were held to just four shots over the final two periods and were outshot 44-12.
"We controlled the game, minimized their shots. They barely had any shots on Nicky (goaltender Nick LeMire)," Eskymos head coach Matt Hughes said. "It's tough for a goaltender when he doesn't see that much action to stay in the game, and he did what he needed to do. He squared up on shots, made the save, covered the puck - he did well in that aspect."
Of the Miners' 12 shots, only one was a quality scoring chance - a 2-on-1 that got behind the Esky defense, forcing LeMire to make a diving save to his right.
Escanaba 3, Negaunee 0
First period - 1. ESC, Hunter LaMarch (Gauthier, AIrd), 10:34; 2. ESC, Calvin Pinar (Chaillier), 10:54.
Second period - 3. ESC, TJ Myrick (Wood, Williams), 9:11.
Third period - No scoring
Power-play opportunities: unavailable
Goalie saves: Negaunee, 41 (Tyler Riutta); Escanaba, 12 (Nick LeMire)
"Our defensemen kept them to the outside. They played the body, they were physical," Hughes said. "And we had good support coming back from our forwards, getting to loose pucks and heading up ice as a unit."
About five minutes after Wunder's injury, Escanaba's third line of Dylan Gauthier, Nick Aird and Hunter LaMarch struck when LaMarch found the net on a tic-tac-toe pass. Capitalizing just 20 seconds after the ensuing faceoff, Derek Chaillier found a racing Calvin Pinar and fed him the puck, which he one-timed past Tyler Riutta.
"It's that type of year. It's the playoffs," Hughes said of the timeliness of his third line. "It's a sad thing to have your leading scorer and top guy go down, but those guys stepped up and played hard. They gave this team some energy and some life.
"They scored the first one, got the team fired up and 20 seconds later they put another one in, and that was a nice play by Derek to hit Calvin Pinar coming up in the slot. That sophomore line made it happen."
It turned out the 20 seconds of offense was all Escanaba needed as their team defense continued to stifle Negaunee.
But it certainly wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been for Negaunee. Of the 44 shots the Eskymos put up, not many were quality chances, and that's partly due to the work the Miners did in their zone. In fact, the Miners re-evaluated their system after getting beat 12-1 by Escanaba on Feb. 11.
"After the last game when they beat us so bad, we completely changed our defensive zone system. This is the third game we had to work on it and I thought it was pretty effective," Miners head coach Darrel Sleeman said. "They still got the shots, but we cut down on the number of quality shots. We didn't quit but - and it's been killing us the whole season - we haven't been able to score goals.
"You can play a perfect defensive game, you still have to score a goal to win. It's a tough loss, but we lost to a good team."
Though Hughes acknowledged that his team has to generate better quality chances, Riutta still had to look sharp on a number of opportunities, including during a 5-on-3 in the third period. He made 41 saves.
"He's been the difference for us all season long," Sleeman said. "He's given us the chance to be in every game, and unfortunately in a lot of games, we haven't responded offensively to support him."
The Eskymos were shorthanded for much of the second period, having to kill off five penalties, yet still outshot the Miners 13-2.
"There was no flow to the second period whatsoever," Hughes said. "It was a pretty choppy period, but the kids fought through it. They had a little adversity thrown at them, killed off a few penalties and created some scoring opportunities in the meantime."
Wunder will be evaluated during today's practice. His status for Thursday's pre-regional final against Marquette at home is unknown. The Redmen beat Kingsford 5-0 Tuesday night.
"In-between periods he was pretty sore and icing it up," Hughes said. "We're going to have a little skate (today). We'll see how much it swells up, how much bruising there is, and we'll go from there."
Sleeman was adamant that there was no intent to injure Wunder.
"Levi is an excellent player and it was sad that he got hurt," Sleeman said. "I would never have someone go out and intentionally hurt someone. I've coached for 45 years and I would never do that.
"It was unfortunate that he got the knee, those things happen. With him being down, that gave us more of a chance, but we didn't respond. They got the timely goals that they had, and they won the game."