HOUGHTON - Houghton's trying to get back to the Compuware Arena for the Division 3 hockey final four, and getting back on defense is one of the big things the Gremlins will need to do to earn the trip.
Two teams with high-powered offenses meet in tonight's state quarterfinal at Lakeview Arena in Marquette as Houghton meets Sault Ste. Marie in a rematch from 2013.
"In playoff hockey, back pressure, backchecking is one of the biggest factors of success in a game. When a team is coming up the ice, limiting their options, that is so huge. When a team has really strong back pressure and backchecks hard, it has a lot to do with the success of that team," Houghton coach Corey Markham said.
The matchup pits the No. 2 (Houghton) and No. 3 (Sault) teams in Michigan Division 3 in the U.S. High School Hockey Online computer rankings.
The Blue Devils, winners of 11 straight, are averaging 4.8 goals per game. Houghton, meanwhile, is well over six. The way Houghton played defense in the regional championship victory over Hancock Saturday will need to be repeated.
"I was happy with how we played team defense. I thought we did a real good job of limiting Hancock's quality chances," Markham said.
Several Gremlins experienced the team's run to the 2012 state championship game, an effort built on the back of a total commitment to the fundamentals of goal prevention. Markham hopes his team is capable of similar commitment with the added benefit of the goalscoring to make it stick.
"That was our calling card, blocking shots and playing real strong overall team defense. We're trying to bring that in with this team that has the offensive firepower," he said.
The Blue Devils short-circuited Houghton's attempt to go back to Plymouth in 2013 by winning the quarterfinal 4-1.
Both teams have continued their success this season, with Houghton entering the game with a 24-3 record and Sault a school-record 23-2-2.
The teams intersected in a first-round game at the MacInnes Holiday Classic Dec. 27 in which Houghton rolled to a shockingly easy 8-0 mercy-rule win, but Sault has not lost since.
Reading a lot into that game in relation to tonight may be foolish, especially since the Blue Devils were without top-six forwards Blake Mastaw and Abby Roque in that game. Mastaw scored twice and Roque once in Sault's 7-1 regional championship win over Cadillac.
"The one effect obviously is we know we can beat them. That for our psyche is big because they beat us twice last year," Markham said.
Markham described Sault as playing 'extremely strong positional hockey,' and having good top-end skill and a dangerous power-play, though after going 4-for-5 with the man advantage in their first meeting, he noted, "We have a strong power-play, too."
Tonight's winner plays the first semifinal at 11 a.m. Friday in Plymouth against Riverview Gabriel Richard or Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central.