Pioneers earn second consecutive GLHL championship

GREEN BAY – It has been a long week for the Portage Lake Pioneers. They played seven games in nine days, which is difficult at any level, but in doing so, they earned themselves the Gibson Cup and then the Great Lakes Hockey League playoff title. The Pioneers won the 2015 playoff championship at Dee Stadium, and won this year at the DePere Ice Center.

For players like defenseman Hunter Rajala, who grew up playing for the Houghton Gremlins before moving on to the Pioneers for the last two seasons, winning back-to-back titles means quite a bit.

“As a kid growing up, you always see yourself as a Houghton Gremlin, but you know, deep down, that the next step, if you didn’t play college hockey or juniors, you want to have a Pioneers jersey on,” said Rajala. “Being able to be a part of the tradition is an honor. You couldn’t ask for a greater honor than to wear a Pioneers jersey and win a cup with them.”

After needing three games and one epic comeback to beat the Calumet Wolverines Tuesday night, the Pioneers were a tired team coming into Friday’s playoff opener at Cornerstone Arena against the Fox Cities Ice Dogs, a team the Pioneers had beaten earlier this season with just 10 skaters.

“We were absolutely exhausted,” said Rajala. “Luckily for us, we have a really good team from the bottom to the top. We’re pretty solid.”

The Ice Dogs jumped out to an early lead just 25 seconds in. Aaron Sturos responded with a tally a little over a minute later to even the game.

The Ice Dogs regained the lead 1:36 into the second. Jay Pietila evened the game shorthanded. Ted Pietila assisted on the goal.

The Ice Dogs scored the next two goals to put the game out of reach for the Pioneers.

“They were ready for us,” said Rajala. “We had a full roster, so we were just going through the motions, expecting an easy victory. They took advantage of us. We were not backchecking as hard. We were giving up really bad odd-man rushes.That allowed them to get some pretty easy goals.”

Knowing they would need a better effort in their second game of the day, the Pioneers would get just that in a 10-1 victory over the Wolverines.

Connor Hannon struck once each period, including the game’s first two goals, and added an assist. Jay Pietila added two goals after the Wolverines had cut the lead to one on a goal from Eric Bausano, giving the Pioneers a three-goal lead heading into the final frame.

Portage Lake struck six times in the third. While running the score up normally is not the way to handle a game, the Pioneers knew they would need goals if they wanted to advance after losing their first game.

“They wanted to get revenge on us for beating them in the Gibson Cup,” said Rajala. “They were coming at us full steam. We knew if we wanted to get in, we were going to need to win by many goals. We knew that if we could get a lead, we would need to keep building on it.”

On Saturday, the Pioneers found themselves in a rematch of last year’s playoff championship against the West Bend Bombers, who had won the GLHL regular season title for the third consecutive season.

The Bombers, looking for redemption, jumped out to a 1-0 lead with just two seconds left in the first. Ted Pietila scored twice in the second and Cody Sivonen added one of his own as the teams found themselves tied 3-3 heading into the third.

Jay Pietila scored the goal that would stand as the game-winner just 7:51 into the third. Sturos assisted on the goal. Pete Rouleau added an insurance goal at 9:03 to help the Pioneers punch their ticket to the title game.

The Wolverines were eliminated earlier in the day on Saturday with a 7-1 loss to Fox Cities.

Facing the Ice Dogs again on Sunday, the Pioneers knew that they needed a stronger effort than the one they had on Friday.

“We knew what we had to do,” said Rajala. “Everyone was ready to go, right from the beginning. We never gave them any life. We made the simple plays.”

Sturos scored the lone tally of the first period at 12:42 shorthanded. Ted Pietila and Paul Kuoppala assisted on the goal.

Ted Pietila struck shorthanded 6:26 into the second. Ryan Sullivan added a third goal for Portage Lake at 15:38.

Carrying a 3-1 lead in the third, the Pioneers struck again at 10:26 when Sturos found the back of the net again. Ted Pietila added an empty-netter with 44 seconds left.

The Ice Dogs scored with 12 seconds remaining, but it was too little too late.

Rajala and his teammates did not have to change much from Friday to Sunday to earn the win.

“From Friday to Sunday, we got the bounces to go our way,” said Rajala. “We really didn’t seem to play much different. We always played with a pretty good intensity. We just made the smarter plays and bounces went in.”