HOUGHTON - East meets West for the right to drive south tonight at Lakeview Arena in Marquette.
Houghton (22-5) and Sault Ste. Marie (20-8) collide in the Division 3 state quarterfinals tonight. The Blue Devils won the first meeting 6-3 in the championship of the MacInnes Holiday Classic Dec. 27. With the stakes dramatically higher, the Gremlins will be looking to overturn that outcome.
"I thought it was a real even game and I do think that we have a real good chance if we play well on Wednesday night," Houghton coach Corey Markham said.
Houghton earned the right to Wednesday's rematch by defeating Calumet and Hancock as part of a successful defense of its regional title. Committing to the defensive end was integral to the effort.
"We blocked a lot of shots. Guys were committing themselves to blocking shots and paying the price to do the right thing," Markham said.
Tonight's winner will face either East Grand Rapids or Flint Powers Catholic in a state semifinal Friday afternoon at Compuware Arena in Plymouth.
In the first meeting, the Blue Devils outscored the Gremlins 2-1 in each period with senior forward Eric Hillock collecting a hat trick and three others putting up a goal apiece. That scoring depth has keyed Sault High all year and is a facet Markham is concerned about.
"Their forwards are tremendously skilled. Their top two lines are real skilled lines that do a real nice job of holding onto the puck and making plays around the net," Markham said. "We have to be real sound in our positioning in the defensive zone because that skill level is so high that it's the biggest thing we'll have to contend with."
There will be several changes for Houghton from that game: Ray Brice, who scored four goals in the regional final Saturday night, was playing sick in that game, first-line forward Casey Markham did not play and Marcus Gloss was in goal. This time, Brice is at full strength (and then some), the Markham questionable to play is Cale (ankle injury) and Jayson Wiitala will get the start in goal. Though Houghton has gone with a goalie tandem all season, Wiitala played both regional games as Gloss was out with a head injury. Gloss was cleared to practice again this week, but coach Markham said Wiitala's playoff performance earned him a start in the quarterfinal.
In the first meeting, Sault goalie Nick McKenzie made 19 saves to Gloss' 28. Changing that ratio will be huge for tonight's game.
"Our emphasis is going to be on getting a lot of pucks to the net and making him make saves," Markham said.
McKenzie has three straight shutouts after the Blue Devils blanked Petoskey 5-0, Cheboygan 11-0 and Alpena 4-0 to win their first regional title since 2007.
"It really could have gone either way," Sault coach John Ferroni said after the MacInnes title game. "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."
"There is not a big difference between these two teams," Houghton coach Corey Markham said after that game. "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."