By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal

It’s always nice to be able to lean on your goaltender to get you through tough hockey games.

rp team

The Division 1 regional hockey champions: The Reeths-Puffer Rockets. Photo/Tim Reilly

On Saturday afternoon at an emotionally charged L.C. Walker Arena, Reeths-Puffer Rocket goaltender Aaron Andrews delivered a 36-save performance and led his team to a 5-3 victory over the Mona Shores Sailors. An estimated 2,000 spectators witnessed the Division 1 contest.

“We have a great high powered offense, but today, our defense stood strong and didn’t give up a lot of opportunities,” Rocket coach Eric Sikkenga said. “Our goaltending, Aaron was fantastic. When it’s 39-29 in shots and you outplay the other goalie, you have a chance to win.

“Mona has a high-powered offense and they’ve got kids who know how to win and they just kept coming,” Sikkenga said. “It was just a phenomenal game for both teams.”

The result not only gave the Rockets the regional title, but a berth in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round. The Rockets will travel to Big Rapids for a 7 p.m. encounter with the winner of the regional game between Grandville and East Kentwood.

“We were all over them in the first and Aaron Andrews really was the difference tonight,” Mona Shores coach Pat Rabbitt said. “He made some really, really good saves, key saves. Then their key guys deliver.”

Indeed, they did deliver as Josh Smith scored a three-goal hat trick and Dean Griffin scored the other two.

Mona Shores was bolstered by the return of Reed Hrynewich, who returned  from a knee injury on Saturday. Rabbitt said he skated Thursday at Rockford and Friday in practice. He wore a brace and had it taped and was a heavy contributor for the Sailors.

“This particular team and these kids … all year long they’ve believed, they’ve battled, they’ve competed,” Sikkenga said.

It was a battle from start to finish, but the goal scoring did not start until the second period.  The Sailors, in particular, had some quality scoring chances in the opening period, none better than the shot from Adam Ulfsax that rang off the crossbar and the close range shot by Gage Veltman seconds later.

Near the midpoint of the second period, Griffin scored his first of two on a wrist shot from the right side that beat Shores goaltender Nate Rabbitt.

Hrynewich answered that goal 2 minutes later when he took a pass from Ulfsax and buried a shot from close range. That goal came while each team was skating a man short.  Nathan O’Neil also assisted on that tally.

Smith got his first of three at 12:36 of the period when he poked the puck into the net from out front. Seconds later, Smith and Kyle Kendra broke in on a 2-on-1 break and Smith slapped the puck into the open side of the net for a 3-1 Rocket lead.

The barrage of goals didn’t end there.

Hrynewich zig-zagged down the center of the ice into the offensive zone. And when two Rocket players rode him off the play, Ulfsax swooped in, grabbed the loose puck and scored a shorthanded goal that made it 3-2 in the latter stages of the second period.

Smith completed his hat trick just 14 seconds into the final period that was assisted by Jeremy Joyce and Kendra.

Before the period hit the 1-minute mark, Shores answered again when an innocent looking wrist shot by O’Neil from near the blue line found its way through several players and under Andrews. Just that quick, the Sailors were back within a goal.

At 10:25, Griffin picked off an attempted clearing pass along the right wing boards, moved into scoring range and fired a shot over the shoulder of Rabbitt to make it 5-3 and completed the game’s scoring.

And when the final buzzer sounded, it set off a wild celebration on the ice and in the Rocket student section located behind the Rocket bench.

It was the second time this season the Rockets defeated the Sailors. The first time was in overtime a month ago.

“For Muskegon high school hockey, we wanted to play Mona Shores here,” Sikkenga said. “Mona is the best team, they are the OK Conference Tier 1 champions. We wanted to play them here and we got that opportunity.

“And that doesn’t mean we thought we were going to win, it’s just that it’s the right thing to do,” Sikkenga said. “The best two teams battle it out on the ice and it’s huge for us.”

Reeths-Puffer improved its record to 25-2-1. Mona Shores finished its season 20-6-2.