Take one goalie who hadn’t strapped on the pads for seven years, add a defenseman who can make a Bobby Orr-esque end-to-end dash and what do the U-32 Raiders have?
How about a second consecutive high school boys Lake Division hockey state championship?
Senior Jordan Blais made the most critical of his 16 saves protecting a late lead and senior Shane O’Neil scored a dazzling tie-breaking goal as the top-seeded Raiders defeated No. 3 Burr and Burton 5-2 at Gutterson Fieldhouse on Wednesday.
Cole Mugford added two goals for the Raiders (20-2-1), who defended their state title of a year ago. Wyatt Peterson and Colvin Rice also scored for U-32, which scored five or more goals in 17 of 23 games this year.
Still, the win was the first for U-32 against the Bulldogs (17-4-1) after a season-opening 6-4 loss and a 2-2 tie in early February. Raiders coach Dave Pickel boiled the difference down to one simple reason: “We scored.”
“Zack Stewart’s a phenomenal goalie. He stonewalled us; he stole a game from us. We outshot them 50-8 and we ended up with a 2-2 tie,” Pickel said. “That speaks volumes of that kid’s character and his ability.”
Even Wednesday, the Raiders managed only three of their goals against Stewart (22 saves); the final two tallies came into an empty net when Stewart departed for an extra attacker and U-32 leading 3-2.
It was late in that period that Blais stepped forward, rewarding the faith his teammates put in him by convincing him to play this year. He made several key saves, protecting the one-goal edge.
“We got him playing summer league with us,” said O’Neill of Blais. “That really got him going and come high school, he was ready to go. I told him at the beginning of the summer if he would come play all summer with us and he would play all season, I guarantee we will get you a state championship.”
“You can’t say enough positive things about a young man who puts his pads on after an eight-year sabbatical and comes out and does what he did. It’s truly amazing,” Pickel said. “That’s a story all of its own.”
The Bulldogs’ Henry Buckley ripped in the first of his two laser-like goals at 8:41 of the first period for a 1-0 lead, but Peterson tied the game for U-32 at 10:34.
Then, 3:42 into the second, O’Neill snared the puck behind his own net and set course for the far end. He blew by defenders, curling around the final one deep on the left side for a shot at Stewart that beat the goalie for a 2-1 lead.
Six minutes later, Mugford bumped the U-32 lead to 3-1 going to the third when the Raiders promptly ran into penalty trouble. Buckley sent a left point drive to the top corner during a two-man advantage, but U-32 survived the remainder of its second penalty.
“Can’t be taking penalties like that,” conceded O’Neill. “Unfortunately we took some penalties that hurt us but our team responded great. We’ve got probably one of the best penalty kills in the state.”
With Stewart out, Mugford and Rice solidified the title with empty-netters at 14:25 and 14:59.
“The tie and the win really showed us we could play with them and that we were a state contender once again,” said O’Neill. “The loss first game of the season really showed us it was going to be a hard season and we were going to have to give it everything we’ve got.”
The championship was the fourth straight for Pickel, who coached the U-32 girls to the 2010-11 titles as well as the boys to last year’s title.