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Gremlins hockey survives fierce battle with Bulldogs

Hancock forward Jackson Sinkowski crashes into Houghton goaltender Bryant Lee and the net during the first period of a game Tuesday at the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — The Hancock Bulldogs hockey team did a near-perfect job of handing the Houghton Gremlins their first loss of the season in a fiercely fought game Tuesday night at the Houghton County Arena.

However, a late goal by junior defenseman Hudson Markham changed all that. That one goal was all that the Gremlins could muster, but it was also all that they needed to skate away with a 1-0 win over the Bulldogs.

Gremlins coach Micah Stipech felt that his team showed signs of fatigue, especially in the first period, and that nearly cost them the game before they even got comfortable.

“(We) knew that this was going to be a rough game at the start because we just had no energy and nobody was talking,” he said. “That team that played against Trenton on Saturday, we didn’t know where it was. It wasn’t a total surprise. We were worried about that. It’s hard for any athlete. It’s hard for high school kids. It’s a rivalry. It’s a packed house. But, the other big part of it was Hancock played freaking hard. They played hard and hungry, so part of it was us, the other part was that they played really well.”

The Bulldogs came out aggressively, both in how they skated, and their willingness to knock the Gremlins’ skaters on their collective butts with heavy checks.

Houghton defenseman Hudson Markham controls the puck during the first period of a game against Hancock Tuesday at the Houghton County Arena in Hancock. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

Despite all of the aggression from the Bulldogs (4-2-1 overall), they could not solve the Gremlins’ senior goaltender Bryant Lee, who worked so hard to keep his team in the game that he suffered from cramps after the contest, but Stipech still was happy with every ounce of what he got from the veteran.

“That was a career performance today,” Stipech said. “That’s the game of his career right now. He came in after the game and his quads are cramping.

“But man, he was awesome. Just some of those saves, we don’t know how he made them. Obviously, we don’t even have a chance without him.”

Lee’s heroics set up the scoreless tie in the final minutes of the contest. Gremlins senior defenseman Connor Raffaelli got to a puck and moved up quickly to Markham in the neutral zone. Markham crossed the offensive blue line on a 2-on-1, and he used his teammate as a bit of a decoy. He cut towards the middle of the rink at the top of the left circle and fired a wrist shot that found a hole in Bulldogs senior goaltender Saku Cunard.

Stipech felt the entire night was a statement game for Markham, who was often the best Houghton skater on the ice.

“Today was his coming of age game,” said Stipech. “We said it actually during the game, the coaches on the bench were like, he might be our best player right now.

“The great thing about adversity is it introduces you to yourself. It introduced us to our team today, and we saw a player emerge. Hudson Markham emerged and showed us what he is, so it was really cool, and I’m really happy for him.”

The Bulldogs’ first sustained pressure in the Gremlins’ end led to an early power play. The best scoring chance that Hancock had was when senior defenseman Zach Geborkoff drove to the crease and tried to stuff one home, but Lee was there to make the save.

Their next best scoring chance came with 1:48 left when freshman winger Brady Axford had a look just off a faceoff in the offensive zone, but again, he was stopped by Lee.

Houghton (7-0 overall) caught a break when co-captain Luke Mikkola was whistled for interference with less than a minute remaining in the opening frame. The Gremlins had all kinds of pressure around Cunard, but nothing got past him.

“For us, pucks to the net was a big thing, because we’re trying to make the extra pass, then turning it over, and then you have to chase,” Stipech said. “It’s really tiring to play defense. So, that was a point of emphasis when we did it; good things happened.”

In the middle frame, Houghton finally started to connect on some passes, but it still did not lead to much success offensively. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs continued to pressure the Gremlins in their own end, and in the neutral zone, leading to multiple good looks for co-captain Bryce Hanner and sophomore defenseman Todd Kilpela.

Lee made 16 saves through the first two periods, but none was bigger than one on Hanner as the Bulldogs’ fourth power play came to a close. Hanner found open ice behind the Gremlins’ defense, got a lead pass, skated in alone and wristed a shot that Lee fought off with 2:27 left in the period.

In the third period, the Gremlins dominated the first 10 minutes, firing multiple shots at Cunard, including two different looks from senior center Michael Maillette, but nothing found the net. Houghton kept pounding away, but to no avail.

Once Hancock finally got a puck to Lee, they got several, including another key chance by Hanner from a bad angle that Lee had to fight off with his shoulder with 4:33 left.

After the Gremlins’ goal, Rouleau called his timeout, and he pulled Cunard for the ensuing faceoff. The Bulldogs got the puck in deep and worked until they had a faceoff to Lee’s left with 14.7 seconds left. Off the draw, they got the puck back to Mikkola, who was positioned between the circles. He took a stride or two to his left and lost his footing, falling to the ice, losing the puck in the process, ending the threat.

Stipech said he and his staff are going to try to give the team a chance to rest and recover, but also keep sharp at the same time.

“We have to find a way to recover, and yet have some sort of a sharp practice because (Monday)’s was sloppy, and it wasn’t surprising,” Stipech said. “We have to find a way to recover, but still have what Coach (Jeff) Finger calls a crispy practice.”

UP NEXT

The Gremlins return to action Friday night when they host Saginaw Heritage at 7 p.m. at Dee Stadium in Houghton.

The Bulldogs are off until next Tuesday, when they travel to play Marquette at 6:30 p.m. at Lakeview Arena.

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