Chippewas bow out to Reeths-Puffer

Manistee forward Yari Lynch (3) brings the puck up the ice during Tuesday’s playoff loss to Reeths-Puffer. (Matt Wenzel/News Advocate)

SCOTTVILLE — Just before the puck dropped with Manistee’s season on the line, senior forward Keegan Nowaczyk had a message for his teammates.

“All the way to the end.”

The co-op Chippewas responded, though it still wasn’t enough to keep playing.

Less than two weeks after not even lasting a full game in an 8-0 mercy-rule loss to Reeths-Puffer, Manistee was eliminated from the playoffs with a 5-2 Division 1 pre-regional loss on Tuesday to the Rockets at West Shore Community Ice Arena.

“Everyone came out to play,” said senior captain Yari Lynch. “Everyone gave it everything they had. None of those guys left anything out there. Nobody has any regrets.”

The Rockets (23-2-1), who set a school record for wins with Tuesday’s victory, led Manistee (6-17) just 3-2 midway through the third period before icing the game with a pair of goals and advance to play the Bay Area Reps, who beat Traverse City West 5-4 in overtime on Tuesday.

“I’m very happy with the 5-2 (score),” said Manistee coach Jeff Patulski. “What I’m focusing on is the fact we went into the third period down by one goal. That’s a big deal.”

Reeths-Puffer beat Manistee 2-1 in overtime in last year’s playoff opener after a pair of more- convincing wins in the regular season. Rockets coach Eric Sikkenga said that fact should have been on his players’ minds, despite the 8-0 win two weeks ago.

“I don’t think it was us taking them lightly as much as they came ready to play,” he said. “They played a much better game than they did two weeks ago, their goalie was fantastic today, we missed six breakaways today. When you don’t score goals, you’re going to be in a dogfight.”

Nowaczyk and Kienan Kowalski each had a goal for Manistee while Josh Thompson came up huge between the pipes with 41 saves as the Rockets outshot the Chippewas 46-16.

“Josh had a huge game — hands down his best game of the year,” Patulski said.

Thompson was the only goalie available for Manistee. Patulski said Mason Clark was unavailable due to a suspension not related to hockey or the team.

Manistee’s depth up front also took a hit early Tuesday as senior Luke Johnson, who centers the second line, suffered a nasty gash on his right hand/wrist after cutting it on a skate during his first shift. Although he said it cut a tendon, Johnson quickly returned to the bench with ice on the wound and was a vocal supporter the rest of the game.

The Rockets jumped out to an early lead with goals from Cody Vanderstelt and Tom Munroe less than three minutes apart for a 2-0 advantage with 11:54 to play in the first. The Chippewas, however, got a big boost from Nowaczyk, who took a pass from Lynch and fired a wrist shots to beat goalie Jared Erickson with 10:24 to play in the first.

“That goal was huge,” Patulski said. “It gave the boys some confidence because we hadn’t scored on them the first time we played them.”

The Rockets got a goal from Derreck Pleimling three minutes later and took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission, though Sikkenga wasn’t thrilled with his team’s execution.

“Our gameplan is usually dump it deep and wear you out down low and then cycle it up high when we get chances,” he said. “Tonight in the first period, we got a lot of shots blocked, we were unwilling to make the easy pass and play deep in the zone.”

All the goals in the first period, and the game, were scored at even strength despite 16 combined penalties.

Thompson made some big saves early to keep his team within two goals and Kowalski pulled the Chippewas within one with a goal assisted by Chad Morang and Jake Kacynski with 10:54 left in the second period.

Manistee took six penalties in the period and even gave Reeths-Puffer a 5-on-3, but the Chippewas did a nice job blocking shots and kept the Rockets off the board in the second.

“They kept coming,” Sikkenga said. “They battled hard, they played physical, they blocked unbelievable, their goaltending was great and we had to work for it. That’s what playoff hockey is about — everyone has a chance.”

Obviously, the Chippewas played much better than they did against the Rockets two weeks ago.

“We didn’t even deserve to be on the same sheet of ice with them, they were just running circles around us,” Patulski said of that game. “The boys had a couple good games since then, we watched some film of Reeths-Puffer and we had one mission tonight and that was to try and slow them down.”

That kept Manistee in the game but eventually the Rockets, who were rolling four lines to the Chippewas relying heavily on two, broke through. Pleimling scored on scramble around the net with 8:12 left in the third and Dean Griffin added another two minutes later.

“We went for broke with the lines we had that we thought could skate with that team,” Patulski said. “I’m very pleased with what the boys did tonight. They made a game of it.”

After the final horn, there were plenty of emotions pouring out for the Chippewas, especially the 10 seniors that played their last game.

“Coming into this game, a lot of people thought we were just going to get mercied again — have a two-period game and then go back to their cars,” Lynch said. “We showed them. We went out with a bang.”

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