Livonia Stevenson hockey players enjoyed the fruits of their labor over the long holiday break, coming out strong Wednesday night and earning a 4-2 victory over state-ranked Plymouth.
Scoring two goals for the Spartans — who stopped their losing streak at four games — was senior forward Alex Walkuski, with single markers by senior forwards Brendan Hall and Julian Decina.
“We had a workout in the morning and we’d have our practice in the afternoon; we definitely worked hard over break,” Stevenson varsity boys hockey coach David Mitchell said. “We wanted to fine-tune some things. I give our players all the credit in the world, it was nice to see them rewarded tonight for how hard they worked.”
Mitchell emphasized that the busy practice load was not any kind of punitive thing but an opportunity to “kind of reset and get better,” particularly on the power play and penalty kill.
Both of those areas helped the 2016 Division 2 finalist Spartans (6-5 overall, 4-3 in the KLAA) ice the gritty Wildcats, who suffered their first defeat of the season after seven straight wins.
“Break was different this year with Christmas and New Year’s both being on weekends and having this extra week here, where we don’t have school,” Mitchell said. “We had ice, we did a lot of meetings, a lot of film, a lot of fine-tuning things. Our kids responded today.”
Plymouth head coach Gerry Vento, meanwhile, said the loss was a reminder for players to start on time. Stevenson enjoyed a 15-5 edge in shots on goal in the first period, finding the mark three times within a 3:30 span behind junior goalie Brendan Olepa.
“The biggest thing is you can’t sleepwalk for a period and expect to win a hockey game,” Vento said. “We had done it the last two games against Canton and Franklin, coming out of the (first) periods 0-0.
“I think they learned their lesson. We’re disappointed about losing a game but we weren’t going to go 25-0.”
Stevenson peppered Olepa in the opening 17 minutes, finally getting on the board during a power play with 10:49 to go. Olepa stopped Logan Dunham’s in-close shot, but Hall slid the rebound inside the left post. Also assisting was defenseman Kevin Stefanick.
Julian Decina then upped the lead to 2-0 at 9:24. Sophomore linemate Cody Ciesliga raced down the right wing and fed a pass across the goal mouth to Decina, who tapped the puck in at the left post.
Just 21 seconds later, the Spartans struck again. Senior forward Justin Alton drove the net only to have his shot denied by Olepa. But the puck bounced out to Walkuski, who chipped it over the goalie.
All pumped up after scoring Wednesday against Plymouth is Livonia Stevenson's Alex Walkuski (9). (Photo: MICHAEL VASILNEK)
The Wildcats called a timeout to regroup, yet the Spartans soon came close to scoring again.
Plymouth goalie Brendan Olepa stops an in-close attempt by Livonia Stevenson's Logan Dunham (24) during Wednesday's game. (Photo: MICHAEL VASILNEK)
Stevenson’s Ciesliga stole the puck in Plymouth’s zone and found Walkuski in front. Walkuski had plenty of time and space, ripping a shot that looked labeled. But Olepa snared the shot to give his team hope.
“He’s a battler, he does everything he can to keep his team in the game, and he did it there,” said Vento, about Olepa (24 saves). “We got a little life from that on the bench.”
Plymouth got right back into the game with two unassisted goals early in the second period, by sophomore forward Nathan Stoneburg and junior forward Jack Chumley.
Stoneburg skated up the middle, cut in on Stevenson junior goalie Will Tragge (18 saves) and slid the puck home.
Less than two minutes later, at 4:57 of the period, it was Chumley’s time for a star turn. He took a loose puck inside his own blue line and darted through Stevenson traffic, launching a shot from between the circles that beat Tragge high on the stick side for his eighth of the season.
“We started the first really slow, that’s evident by the three-goal deficit,” Chumley said. “But we knew coming out into the second we needed to get something going and build some momentum.
“It was good, once we got that first goal things started rolling a little bit. And then I saw the puck come out to me, I walked it in and shot it. I wanted to see what could happen from it. It ended up going in and it got the boys going for a little bit. It was good.”
Vying for a loose puck Wednesday at Arctic Edge Arena are Plymouth's Nathan Stoneburg (17) and Livonia Stevenson's Jack Williamson (23). (Photo: MICHAEL VASILNEK)
The Wildcats missed a glorious chance to tie the game during a subsequent power play. Senior defenseman Zach Gallaher’s shot from the left wing was stopped by Tragge, but the goalie couldn’t corral the rebound.
With Tragge down and out, the Wildcats took several cracks at a seemingly wide-open net. The Spartans somehow survived that scrum still up 3-2.
“That was a back-breaker, we had a lot of chances there,” Vento said. “If we pop that one in things are a little different. But we didn’t, and you can’t cry over spilled milk.”
Stevenson got a crucial insurance goal with just 1:49 remaining in the period when Walkuski knocked in the rebound of an Alton shot. The goal came shortly after a Plymouth penalty was killed off, but the Spartans remained on the attack.
“The penalty expired and our guy got back on the ice but he didn’t get back to his spot on five-on-five coverage,” Vento said.
Plymouth could not manage much of an assault in the third period, with the defense-first Spartans closing out the victory — showing their coach they learned some things during those holiday practices and film sessions.
“They just do a lot of little things well,” Chumley said. “They beat you to pucks, they win a lot of battles, they just do a lot of the little things right and a lot of times it can just wear you down as a team.”
Walkuski said he and his teammates knew stopping their losing streak against a strong opponent such as Plymouth was not going to be easy — even with the quick 3-0 lead.
“We knew they were good, we knew we had to battle,” Walkuski said. “We just battled throughout the game.
“But it was tough. We had a 3-0 lead and they scored two on us. We just had to get something going. Luckily I got another one. ... Hopefully we’ll get on a winning streak now.”
There were some happy moments Wednesday for Plymouth, such as here following a second-period goal by Jack Chumley (19) which cut Stevenson's lead to 3-2. (Photo: MICHAEL VASILNEK)
ROAD TRIP: The Spartans will face KLAA rival Salem at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Adrian College (the game originally was slated for Bowling Green State University).
According to Mitchell, both teams will practice Friday and catch a NCAA Division III game featuring the home team.
On Saturday will be the chance to visit Adrian’s hockey facilities, talk to the coaching staff and soak up the environment at one of two NCAA D-III teams in the state.
“NCAA D-III hockey is really good hockey,” Mitchell said. “Myself and (Salem head coach) Ryan Ossenmacher thought it would be a good opportunity to expose our kids to D-III hockey, in addition to all the ACHA club teams they have at Adrian.
“We’re just showing our kids about the college opportunities that are there for them if they choose to do so.”
• Plymouth also is taking to the road, traveling to Sault Ste. Marie to play games Friday and Saturday against Alpena and the host Blue Devils, respectively.