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Saturday Stunners

By Craig Peterson, 01/26/20, 7:00PM EST


Huge upsets rattle the high school hockey landscape

There were not one, not two, but three monumental upsets in hockey over the weekend. I’m talking huge underdogs and by my estimation, three of the largest we’ve seen all season. The victors in those contests were separated by more than 50 spots from their counterparts in the latest MyHockeyRankings and I’m gonna tell you how they did it.

Hockey is not a complicated game. Really, it’s quite simple. Pretty much everyone executes the same breakout of the D-zone (or some variation stemming from the initial structure), there’s only a handful of different forechecks, and a very finite combination of power plays/penalty kills that all stem from the same general concepts. It’s not like we’re dealing with football and the spread, Wing-T, triple option, pro-style, West Coast offense, and on and on and on.

As I watched No. 94 Capital City take on No. 44 Forest Hills Northern-Eastern at Munn Ice Arena, the difference in the game boiled down to some very basic components for me.

Cap City definitely doesn’t have more talent than FHNE.

Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard does not have more depth than Canton.

Lowell-Caledonia hasn’t played as tough a schedule as Grandville.

So what do upsets like these boil down to? Effort and commitment.

If you forecheck with aggression, if you backcheck with a purpose, if you jump off of face-offs, if you communicate and stick to your game plan, I’m convinced that you can at the very least compete with just about any team in the state.

None of that requires a high level of skill. You don’t need three forward lines and six D. You don’t need fancy video breakdowns, track absurd stats or bizarre X’s and O’s. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but, effort and commitment can be the ultimate equalizer in an otherwise lopsided matchup.

FHNE is a fantastic team. They’re a talented squad with depth, goaltending and coaching, and have all the makings of yet another deep playoff run in March. Their success as a program is well-documented and I don’t look at Saturday’s game as a blemish to them in any capacity, but more a significant accomplishment for the Capitals. Same goes for the Irish and Canton, same goes for Lo-Cal and Grandville. 

What I saw was Cap City bring an aggressive forecheck in the offensive zone that forced FHNE into quick decisions that they didn’t want to make.

I saw Tyler Nickelson overpower players like Ethan Bond, take the puck away and go on the attack in transition. Bond and other Caps, however, responded by moving their feet and hustling back to the D-zone with relentless effort.

I saw the Caps, even when trailing 2-0 early in fear of the game snowballing out of hand, and again, down 2-1 late in the third period, never waiver in their game plan. Mike Tyson’s famous quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” right? We’ve all seen it in hockey where players break away at the first sign of distress, and top guys just try doing it all themselves. Not the case Saturday. The Caps ate a lot of punches from FHNE. They also delivered a couple, hit a goal post or two and a few close opportunities, sticking to the game plan through thick and thin, ultimately getting rewarded with two goals late in the game to take the lead. 

I’ve watched this type of game a dozen times this season; Saturday was the first time I saw this ending. 

To see these types of upsets — and the way in which they were executed — for me as a fan of high school hockey, is exciting for the game. A team with a significant talent disparity, nowhere near the player depth and certainly not the experience, go in against a giant of an opponent, compete and WIN?! Wow.

I hear it a lot… “Teams 50-100 don’t have the depth that 1-49 enjoy” or “Team A just has more talent than Team Z” and “That program has way more players in their school to pick from than we do.” While in a lot of cases, those statements may hold true, I believe proper coaching and execution of a few small details of the game can be an amazing equalizer at our level of hockey. 

All 2,500 kids in MI-HS are capable of backchecking, forechecking and communicating. It’s up to the coaches to find creative ways through practices and game plans to get those kids to execute. If you can do those things, you’re capable of pulling off upsets like these. 

Both Gabriel Richard and Lo-Cal were 68 spots behind their respective opponents on Saturday. Cap City was 50 spots behind FHNE. November through February is not about wins and losses, it’s about how you win and how you lose. This trio of stunners could’ve resulted in close games or tough, nail-biting losses and I think I’d still be this fired up. I’ll take an 8-7 team that competes and plays hard over a team that’s 15-1 getting by on individualism and end-to-end plays.

These outcomes didn’t happen overnight; these stunners are the product of the last few months, building, developing, implementing these systems and structure over the course of practices, film study and some ugly losses in November and December to get to this point. Now, with four weeks left in the season, we’re seeing teams like Lo-Cal, Cap City and the Irish playing some of their most fundamentally sound hockey of the season and everyone is seeing the fruits of their labor. Just ask their opponents from Saturday. 

If you’re in the middle of the pack, looking to maximize your output from limited resources, I highly suggest reaching out to coaches like Travis Van Tighem, Joe Ford, Clint Robert and Phil Wendecker. Take a page out of their books, pick their brains and find out what they’re doing because clearly, they have formulas that work. 

Upset Saturday was the best thing I saw this week, how about you? I’m always on Twitter itching to talk high school hockey.