MADISON — Eau Claire Memorial senior goaltender Trevor Hudecek compared each period of a hockey game to a mile. That’s been his squad’s approach all season.
Therefore, one three-period game is just about the equivalent of a 5K.
In Thursday’s WIAA boys hockey state quarterfinal against West Salem/Bangor, the Old Abes treated their race tactically but comfortably, just like you’d see a championship runner do in a preliminary race. And that’s kind of what the game was to them.
Second-seeded Memorial crossed the finish line on Thursday with a 6-2 win over the Panthers during their opening game at the state tournament at the Alliant Energy Center.
“We knew it was going to be long, the rink is hot and it’s just a little different of an atmosphere than we are used to at Hobbs,” said Hudecek, who stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced. “I think we came out and handled it well.”
The Old Abes, playing at their ninth consecutive state tourney, spent the first eight or nine minutes feeling out the Panthers, led by Mr. Hockey winner Jack Gorniak.
West Salem/Bangor even had a couple of shots low in the slot that Hudecek handled.
But as it’s done all year when it’s been in trouble or in a gridlock, Memorial simplified the game and crowded the crease.
“It seemed like we were just trying to feel out what they were going to bring the table and see what we had to do to have success, and then we finally started getting pucks to the net and crashing the net,” coach Chris Tok said.
Despite being outshot for much of the first period, the Old Abes went into the first intermission up 2-0.
Ben Zacho rifled a wrister from the high slot to the upper left-hand corner of the net at 9:36, and Brenden Olson then rattled home a rebound off a Kaden Kohlhepp shot from the point four minutes later.
Memorial settled down and cruised in the second period, outshooting the Panthers 13-3 in the next 17 minutes.
Max Savaloja had the lone goal of that period on a highlight-reel play. The 5-foot-9 sophomore got the puck at the blue line and drove wide. He put the rubber between the defender’s legs to get the net and then backhanded in a five-hole goal. A nifty display of stick work to say the least.
Line two for Memorial wound up scoring two goals as Austin Karnitz — who filled in after Carter Ottum went down with a leg injury — knocked in a third-period tally on an assist from Savaloja.
“We knew we wanted to get out there and score some goals,” Savaloja said. “Carter went down and Austin went in there and did a good job, and me and Joe (Free) work pretty well together. It’s just nice to get some recognition and play well.”
Memorial’s potent first line of Hutson Collins, Zacho and Olson accounted for the other two third-period goals. Olson got a weird one to go after his deflected puck from behind the net shot high in the air, and a Panthers defenseman accidentally batted it in his own net.
Zacho scored on a second-chance goal with under a minute left for icing on the cake.
The Abes scored six goals, but the defense and Hudecek kept a usually high-scoring Panthers offense in check. Gorniak had one goal on a breakway, but otherwise his chances were pretty far from the net.
“We drew up on the board there that our forwards had to do a better job of coming to the middle of the ice to push things to the outside, and that helps defensemen squeeze guys and push everything to outside,” Tok said. “And when you have a guy in net like Hudecek has been playing lately, all those perimeter shots he handles.”
“That first period I made a couple of saves, but our D basically shut down the middle,” Hudecek added. “They made it easy for me.”
Nick Schultz gave Hudecek a breather and came in for the final 5:04 of action.
The Old Abes outshot the Panthers 29-25 for the game.
This Memorial team is’’t just happy to be here. It expected to win on Thursday night, and it wasn’t overly celebratory near its locker room.
The Old Abes will quickly wipe away the excitement and get ready for today’s semifinals.
“This is only one step in our journey, so we just have to keep it going,” Olson said.
Memorial will toe the line again at 6:15 p.m. today. It’s got its second of what it hopes will be three races to run.