HOUGHTON - Given talent and effort levels on par Thursday night, the John MacInnes Holiday Classic between Houghton and Sault High would be decided by which team made the most plays above the ordinary and committed the fewest mistakes.
In this meeting, that would be the visiting Blue Devils.
Sault grabbed two goals in the first seven minutes and capitalized on several turnovers en route to a 6-3 victory over the previously undefeated Gremlins for their seventh Classic win in 38 years and first since 2009. It was very much a feeling-each-other-out type of affair, however, as both coaches acknowledged after the game the margin of victory was much slimmer than three goals - and a state quarterfinal meeting could be in the offing if the strong seasons continue for both programs.
Sault Ste. Marie's Chase Meehan (4) and Kyle TenEyck tie up Houghton's Austin Erva during Thursday's MacInnes Holiday Classic championship game at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
"There is not a big difference between these two teams," Houghton coach Corey Markham said. "There really isn't. Definitely not a 6-3 difference. (Sault) are a good team and they deserved to win tonight, so we will have to get better but it was inches tonight.
"I really hope we get to see them again."
"It really could have gone either way," Sault coach John Ferroni said. "That is a great hockey team over there, probably as good as any team we have seen this year and we have seen a few. Really proud of the way the guys competed to get that win."
Sault 2 2 2 - 6
Houghton 1 1 1 - 3
First period - 1, SSM, Ryan Dalsky (Christian Wilkins, Chris Skinner), 6:24; 2, SSM, Eric Hillock (Chase Gamelin, Wilkins), 6:57; 3, Hou, Spencer Donnelly (Austin Erva), 16:34.
Second period - 4, SSM, Hillock (Justin Deisle, Wilkins), 5:59; 5, Hou, Connor Hannon (Cale Markham), 9:22; 6, SSM, Gamelin (Willem Gauthier, Hillock), 16:01.
Third period - 7, Sau, Hillock (Gamelin), 5:51; 8, SSM, Gauthier (Gamelin), 15:14; 9, Hou, Raymond Brice, 16:21.
Penalties - Sau, 5-10; Hou, 4-8.
Goalie saves - SSM, Nick McKenzie 19 (5-8-6); Hou, Marcus Gloss 28 (7-10-11).
Although Houghton collected the first five shots of game on net, it was the Blue Devils striking first when forward Ryan Dalsky tipped a slap shot from defenseman Christian Wilkins over six minutes in. Just over 30 seconds later, senior forward Eric Hillock - who collected a hat trick and tournament MVP honors - split the Gremlins defense on a breakaway and calmly backhanded past Houghton goalie Marcus Gloss.
"We talked about this morning how important it was to match their energy and their speed up front," Ferroni said. "We needed to accomplish that first and we accomplished that and got some confidence from there."
Houghton grabbed one back with 24 seconds left in the opening period, though, when Spencer Donnelly banked a goal in off Sault defenseman Chase Meehan after receiving a nice feed behind the endline from Austin Erva.
Goals in rapid succession from Hillock and Houghton forward Connor Hannon made it a 3-2 game with over seven minutes left in the second frame, setting off a period of multiple grade-A chances for both teams with crowd-lifting hitting to spare. Houghton forwards Ray Brice (twice) and Jed Kallio were denied by Sault goalie Nick McKenzie at the doorstep, while Gloss was called on to make several scrambling saves of his own.
Just as it appeared Houghton was ready to tie and seize the momentum, top line forward Willem Gauthier slid a precise pass to Chase Gamelin at the crease that the senior buried to give the Blue Devils a two-goal lead.
"We had chance after chance and just couldn't get the goal in," Markham said. "Then for them to grab that one at the end of the second really hurt us when we were so close to tying it up. If we score and tie it up, when we were playing really well at that point, things might have been different."
The top line of Gauthier, Gamelin and Hillock combined for nine goals and nine assists over the two games.
"Gauthier easily could have shot that puck, but the right play was to Gamelin in that corner," Ferroni said. "I just think they are very unselfish guys. They always look for each other and they just have some nice chemistry together I think at any level of hockey, when you put unselfish guys together they develop that great chemistry."
Like Hillock's tally in the first period, the goal was made possible after an errant cross-ice pass was intercepted.
"When you play a good team you can't afford to have a big mistake like that," Markham said. "Throwing it over the middle of the rink from deep in our own end, they intercepted it and put it in our net. You just can't do that."
Sault was able to put the contest out of reach six minutes into the third period when Hillock completed his hat trick with a backhand that went a soft five-hole on Gloss, sucking the energy from a game that was starting to bring out the best in both teams.
Both coaches expressed a hope that the squads would get one more chance to meet this postseason.
"I like to know what level they are at and what level we need to get to," Markham said. "I like seeing how they do their power play and their penalty kill. Their top two lines and our top two lines I thought were very even. I just don't pick out a big difference between the two teams in a lot of areas."
Along with Hillock as MVP, forwards Gamelin (Sault), Gauthier (Sault), Hannon (Houghton), defensemen Christian Wilkins (Sault) and Hunter Rajala (Houghton) and goaltender McKenzie (Sault) were named to the all-tournament team.