Arrowhead coach Jinelle Siergiej seriously considered starting another goalie Thursday night before gambling on Hanna Nicholson.
Appleton United’s season might still be alive had Siergiej gone another direction.
Nicholson was stellar in the net, frustrating United with her quickness and denying one shot after another in the Warhawks’ 3-1 WIAA girls’ hockey regional tournament win at the Appleton Family Ice Center.
Nicholson, a junior, finished with 33 saves and teammate Hannah Bird delivered a hat trick, allowing fifth-seeded Arrowhead (8-15) to pull off a slight upset over fourth-seeded United, which closed the season at 10-12-2.
“Their goalie played very well,” said Appleton United coach Marcus Nejedlo. “Nicholson did a really nice job and they did a good job of crowding the net. They slid into the slot and made it very difficult for us to operate down low and get clean opportunities.”
Nicholson has been inconsistent all season, but put a wall around the Warhawks’ net with their season on the line.
“Honestly, I debated playing her tonight because she’s a hit and miss goalie,” said Siergiej, a former member of the U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey team. “But she always seems to come through in the big game and has more experience than our other goalie who is a freshman. Hanna played fantastic.”
The only lapse Nicholson had all night came early in the game when Molly McKeever tapped in a rebound shot from the left side after a United shot caromed off the pipe on the right side.
United had a chance to build on its 1-0 lead in the second quarter when given a penalty shot following an Arrowhead tripping call. But Nicholson smothered Natalie West’s blast.
After the Warhawks tied the game on Bird’s first goal, United had another second-period scoring opportunity. However, officials waived off what initially appeared to be an Appleton goal, ruling the net had fallen off the goal before the puck crossed the goal line.
“The refs have a tough job to do,” said Nejedlo. “I thought it was in, but they talked about it and disallowed it.”
United kept peppering Nicholson with shots, but couldn’t slam the puck past her.
Bird stole a pass and drilled a shot past United goalie Libbey Breaker to give Arrowhead a 2-1 lead early in the third period. It stayed a one-goal game until the final minute, when Bird scored on a breakaway to complete her hat trick.
“Hannah (Bird) is going to play hockey at St. Thomas (Minn.),” said Siergiej. “She’s a great all-around player.”
Breaker finished with 27 saves for United, which beat Arrowhead 3-2 earlier this season.
“Arrowhead has really improved,” said Nejedlo. “They’re playing at a different pace than they were before. They have a couple of very skilled players and that whole team is playing well.”
The loss completed Nejedlo’s first season as United’s head coach. He had hoped for a longer tournament run, but had no complaints with his team’s energy and effort all season.
“I very much enjoyed it and definitely learned a lot,” Nejedlo said. “I’m proud of the girls and really impressed with their work ethic. They have a lot of pride and a lot of passion for the game. The hard part is learning to live without them the next couple months until we get back to work again. We have a couple of seniors who I’m really going to miss.”
Goals — First period: Molly McKeever AU (Jenny Miller, Natalie West) 10:56. Second period: Hannah Bird AR (Jade Nielsen) 8:31. Third period: Bird AR 2:12; Bird AR 16:43. Saves: Hanna Nicholson AR 33, Libbey Breaker AU 27. Shots on goal: Arrowhead 34, Appleton United 27.
— Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or email@example.com; On Twitter @twfroberg