HANCOCK - Precious metals are refined in the hottest fires. After three periods in the Hancock crucible, Houghton was found to be 100 percent pure Thursday.
The Gremlins overcame a third-period deficit for a 5-4 win at Houghton County Arena and a perfect 10-0 run through the Lake Superior Hockey Conference.
"It's huge. Our goal from Day One is just to get conference champs and build momentum from there going into the playoffs. To beat a good team like Hancock, it's phenomenal in their own building," said Houghton junior Jed Kallio.
Houghton’s Casey Markham (11)?and Connor Hannon celebrate with goaltender Jayson Wiitala at the final whistle of Thursday’s 5-4 win over Hancock at Houghton County Arena. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
Kallio's laser on the move through the right circle was the game-winning goal with 2:01 to play, capping a wild third period in which the Gremlins (20-5, 10-0) had the lead, lost it, then took it back.
"We've been waiting for that from Jed. He can absolutely rip the puck. He has the best snap shot on our team. It's not even close. He can just wire the puck. He finally hit the net. It's been an issue for us all year that he missed the net a lot. Boy, he placed that one nice," Houghton coach Corey Markham said.
Hancock, which remained in the conference race until the final whistle Thursday, had its moments, surviving a major penalty early in the second period, then scoring three times in a row to take a 4-3 lead with 12:50 to play and holding it through the halfway point of the frame.
Houghton 2 1 2 - 5
Hancock 0 2 2 - 4
First period - 1, HOU, Ray Brice (unassisted), :53; 2, HOU, Connor Hannon (Hunter Rajala), 8:47.
Second period - 3, HAN, Tanner Kearly (Kyle Hauswirth), 2:09; 4, HOU, Tristan Foltz (Hannon, Jed Kallio), 5:38 (PP); 5, HAN, Hauswirth (Jacob Norkol), 11:31.
Third period - 6, HAN, Zach Ahola (Alex Hill, Wade Hanke), :42; 7, HAN, A. Hill (Ahola), 4:10; 8, HOU, Brice (Casey Markham), 10:43 (SH); 9, HOU, Kallio (Cole Hagwell, Rajala), 14:59.
Power-play opportunities - Houghton 1-for-2; Hancock 0-for-2.
Penalties - Houghton 2/4, Hancock 2/7.
Goalie saves - HOU, Jayson Wiitala 23 (6-11-6); HAN, Jacob Givens 33 (2-21-10).
"We played them tough. Moral victories don't really thrill me too much. I'd rather have the 'W.' It's just nice that we are playing decent going into the playoffs, but we've got to learn to win games like this, otherwise we're going home," Hancock coach Dan Rouleau said.
In the end, Houghton's top-end talent took over, starting with a memorable goal from a memorable player.
Ray Brice scored shorthanded to tie the game with 6:17 to play. The goal, his 38th of the season, came with the Gremlins down both a goal and a man. He and Casey Markham pressed the issue offensively and pushed into the zone 2-on-2. Brice put a hard shot on and though Markham followed the play, the puck trickled in past Bulldog goalie Jacob Givens before Markham could get a stick to it.
The tally was massive both for the night and the history books. Brice set a new Houghton High School record for goals in a season, surpassing Rich Whitten. Whitten, who accomplished the feat in the mid 1980's, went on to play four seasons at Western Michigan.
"It was one of my goals at the start of the season. I didn't think it could be achieved and tonight, I got it. It felt awesome," Brice said.
The junior tied the record in the first minute of the game. Left alone in the left circle, he whipped a low shot behind Givens just 53 seconds in. Connor Hannon put one in off the post for a 2-0 lead at 8:47.
Givens gave up two goals on four first-period shots but rebooted brilliantly. He stopped 21 shots in the second period alone and after Dylan Paavola's major penalty and game disqualification for checking Brice from behind, a batch of massive saves kept the game within two goals after Tristan Foltz's slapper got through 15 seconds after the penalty.
Givens stoned Hannon on an open breakaway, turned aside a Houghton player after a brilliant spinning backdoor pass from Brice and caught a third-period puck deflected by Brice on one hop.
"The guys on the bench get fired up and all of a sudden, we're pressing the attack a little bit. That was huge," Rouleau said.
Kyle Hauswirth, who had already assisted on Tanner Kearly's goal earlier in the period, got one of his own at 11:31, cleaning up a loose rebound.
The Bulldogs tied it on the first shift of the third period when Zach Ahola was first to a loose puck in the danger zone just 42 seconds in. Alex Hill drew the primary assist and had a bead on the game-winning goal when he fired it home from the slot at 4:10, but it was not to be for the Bulldogs.
"Each game we've played them, we've gotten a little bit better. What you have to do against a team like this, when you have a one-goal lead, you have to manage the puck better. They have an offensive team and if you're going to give the puck back to them, they're going to do good things with it," Rouleau said.
Houghton, which got 23 saves from Jayson Wiitala, has a week to prepare for a battle royale with Calumet in the late (8 p.m.) semifinal of the regional tournament next Thursday at Michigan Tech.
Givens stopped 33 shots for the Bulldogs (12-12, 7-2 LSHC), who have a little work to do before they can worry about the playoffs. Kingsford comes in Saturday at 2:30 p.m. for a make-up game.