PLYMOUTH — With about a month left in the season, Sam Brennan wasn’t making the impact expected of a player in his third year with Brighton’s hockey program.
It certainly didn’t help that his slow start to the season was followed up by two months on the shelf with a broken collarbone.
But with the season winding down and the games becoming more important, Brennan has become a force for the Bulldogs.
His third goal of the season 3:22 of the game jumpstarted third-ranked Brighton’s 5-0 victory over fourth-ranked Northville in the Division 1 state semifinals before 1,136 fans Friday at USA Hockey Arena.
The Bulldogs (23-6-1) will play three-time defending champion Detroit Catholic Central for the fourth time in five years for the state championship at 6 p.m. Saturday in Plymouth. Brighton beat Catholic Central, 2-1, on Jan. 28.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Brighton goalie Logan Neaton said.
Brennan’s goal was the only scoring damage done during the first two periods. Mathew Kahra scored two of Brighton’s three third-period goals to clinch the Bulldogs’ fifth trip to the state finals in the last six seasons.
Brennan came into the game with only two goals, both coming in a 4-3 loss to Hartland on Feb. 18.
But there’s a reason he’s been a varsity player in one of the state’s top programs since his freshman year. It showed on the first goal, as he carried the puck from the Brighton blue line to just inside the Northville line, dropping a pass for Spencer Gehres.
Brennan continued charging to the net, where he was able to knock in a rebound off a Gehres shot on the backhand.
“I’ve always been taught, if I can go up in the rush and I know I’ve got guys covering for me, to go,” Brennan said. “I like trying to score goals.”
It worked out, so Brighton coach Paul Moggach could joke about it.
“They forgot to put the leash on him on his way out,” Moggach said. “They’ve got to read the play. If he gets burnt there, he pays the price when he comes over, but he didn’t. He did the right thing.”
Points of any kind were hard for Brennan to come by early in the season.
He was scoreless in his first five games, sustaining a broken collarbone against Detroit U-D Jesuit in that fifth game.
After missing two months, he had an assist in his first game back on Feb. 3, was shut out along with the entire Brighton team against Grosse Pointe South the next day, then put together a scoring streak that reached nine games with his goal against Northville. He also assisted on Brighton’s second goal.
“A lot of times, I’ve been focused on doing the simple things and not trying to do too much,” Brennan said. “It’s ended up working out well for me. At the beginning of the year, I was trying to do too much. I wasn’t playing as well and wasn’t having as much fun.”
Brennan dished the puck to Kahra down low for Brighton’s second goal just 41 seconds into the third period on the power play.
Defenseman Tim Erkkila scored at 8:33, Kahra at 11:22 and Gehres at 16:16 to make the game a rout.
Neaton made 24 saves, extending his shutout streak to 135 minutes and 47 seconds. He beat the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in Division 1 in the process.
“He’s in a good zone,” Moggach said. “We’re trying to play a little better defensively and I think it shows for him and for our team.”
Northville (22-7-1) beat Brighton, 3-2, on Feb. 10.
“I don’t necessarily think anything was different about them,” Northville coach Clint Robert said. “It’s Brighton. We know what we’re going to get. They play the same way. They’ve been playing the same way since coach Moggach has been there. We got some bounces last game. They had a couple guys out. I thought they played their game and we couldn’t get pucks to the net.”
The Mustangs were 0-for-5 on the power play.
“They were just really aggressive,” Northville forward Alex Iafrate said. “They were smart with it, too. They took away our passing options. We ended up coughing the puck up.”