No, that wasn’t a playoff game that created the impressive line for tickets in the lobby of Eddie Edgar Arena just before 8 pm. Wednesday night — and the electric atmosphere inside the complex’s south rink that never lost steam for close to two hours.
It was something just as important, though, for approximately two-thirds of Livonia high school hockey fans: the much-anticipated showdown featuring revitalized Franklin and perennial power Stevenson.
Once the first puck dropped, the action on the ice exceeded the build-up as the Spartans overcame a 2-1 second-period deficit to hammer out a 5-3 victory in a game enhanced by the raucous (and well-behaved) cheering sections from each school.
The triumph improved the Spartans’ record to 3-2 and earned them this season’s Livonia city championship (Stevenson defeated Churchill, 9-2, on Nov. 25).
The setback was the first in five games this season for the now-dangerous Patriots, who have quickly earned the respect of their crosstown opponents.
“We don’t look at winning the city championship as much as we do knowing that Franklin and Churchill are high-quality opponents now that we have to be up for,” said Stevenson head coach David Mitchell. “These are emotional games, fun games. It’s a great time to be a high school hockey player in Livonia and a high school hockey fan.”
With the possible exception of the final few minutes, during which Stevenson effectively protected a two-goal lead, the match-up was coated with drama throughout.
“I was very proud of our guys’ effort tonight; they never quit,” said Franklin head coach Dennis Gagnon. “Stevenson is a talented, fast team with an excellent coaching staff.
“We will watch film on this game, learn from it and keep our eyes on the prize at the end of the year.”
The Patriots drew first blood 11 minutes in when Cory Linsner back-handed a rocket from the bottom of the right face-off circle past Stevenson goal-tender Cullen Barber after breaking free behind the Spartan defense just inside the blue line.
Franklin was just 13 seconds away from carrying the lead into the first intermission, but Stevenson’s Kevin Stefanick gave his team a jolt of momentum when his slap shot from just inside the blue line found its way through traffic in front of the crease, past Patriot freshman goalie Jake Penny and into the back of the net.
In the wake of a pair of impressive saves by Penny off blistering shots from juniors Ryan McCamant and Christian Nabozny, Franklin seized a 2-1 lead when Linsner threaded a long pass to Brendan Whitney, who was stationed just outside the blue line after darting off the bench as a Patriot penalty expired.
With the entire zone to himself, Whitney carried the puck to Barber’s glove side before flipping the disc into the top of the net, setting off a thunderous cheer from the Patriots cheering section.
“I think we caught them by surprise a little bit,” Gagnon said.
The game’s turning point arrived four minutes later when the Spartans answered with bang-bang goals from Nate Sudek at the 2:32 mark and Joe Alcantara 61 seconds later to seize a 3-2 advantage.
Stevenson never trailed again.
“We got stronger as the game went on, which is a testament to our guys,” Mitchell said. “Tonight was a good test for our veteran players and a good learning experience for our younger players.”
Stevenson pushed its lead to 4-2 with 8:58 remaining in the game when Adam Olson whistled a shot past Penny after securing a pass from Shane Leonard.
Fifty-four seconds later, the resilient Patriots clawed back to within 4-3 when Jack Engel scored (from Whitney), but Sudek answered at the 7:40 mark with an insurance goal from Nick Beers.
Both goalies brought their “A” games. Barber turned away 22 shots while Penny’s stoppage total reached 40, Gagnon estimated.