By Dave Tomczak
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – It wasn’t time for the Reeths-Puffer hockey season to end. Not just yet.

Facing an extremely early exit from the Division 2 Pre-Regional playoffs, Reeths-Puffer rallied for two goals in the final 5:17 of regulation and pulled off a thrilling 3-2 win over Traverse City Central Tuesday night at the L.C. Walker Arena.

The win means the Rockets will face Mona Shores on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the L.C. in the Pre-Regional Final. The Sailors advanced earlier Tuesday with a 9-1 win over Petoskey.

Struggling for most of the night to get any constant pressure in the TC Central zone, Reeths-Puffer finally began to find its groove on offense in the third period.

The Rockets would have their most productive period shooting-wise, peppering Trojans’ freshman goalie Darrell Carlisle with 12 shots, but it wouldn’t provide results until Josh Smith found himself all alone and speeding towards the net on a breakaway.

After making a couple of moves, Smith simply came to a complete halt in front of the net, found a spot and slipped the puck past Carlisle to tie the game at 2-all with 5:17 left.

“We usually have a play every couple of games where Josh gets in behind the defense,” Rockets coach Eric Sikkenga said. “We know he has speed, but I’ve never seen him make that shot before. I couldn’t see an opening and I just hoped it went in.”

The celebration was short lived, however, as Puffer was quickly called for a penalty just 1:30after the goal. But 30 seconds into the Trojans power play, Smith stole the puck and lead a 2-on-1 charge that resulted in Kyle Kendra facing an open net, only to have the puck skip over his stick.

After killing off the penalty, Puffer would get a power-play advantage of its own just five seconds after Traverse City’s.

With the extra attacker and only seconds before overtime, the Rockets’ Kendra dug the puck out from behind the net and found Riley Draper out in front with 34 seconds left in the game. Draper caught the puck, spun and fired into the top of the net for the game winner.

“We came out in the first period really flat,” Draper said. “They were strong on the puck and didn’t give us a lot of room to move, but I think we started to bounce back late in the second. (In the third period) we finally had some good pressure in their zone for awhile and I finally found room in front of the net.”

The five minute fury at the end of the game for the Rockets was completely different from how the first two periods played out.

Right from the opening faceoff, the Trojans dictated the action, putting constant pressure on the Rockets defense and disrupting any neutral zone passing.

“They’re physically a big team and tough to make breakout passes against,” Sikkenga said. “Against a team like that we had to get pucks on the net and we didn’t do that. We didn’t dictate the pace of play at all and we let them bring it to us.”

Despite being outshot 12-4 in the first period, and having to face a 5-on-3 power-play,  Reeths-Puffer headed to the first intermission tied 0-0.

The opening five minutes of the second period saw various scoring chances, as the Rockets hit the crossbar with a shot, the Trojans have a goal waved off because the net was knocked off its moorings and another R-P shot just miss, this time hitting off both posts.

Finally, seven minutes into the second, the Trojans’ Rhys Adle scored on the power-play for a 1-0 lead. Reeths-Puffer responded 1:51 later, as Kendra redirected a shot by Smith to tie the game.

But more mistakes by the Rockets allowed TC Central to score again three minutes later. Back-to-back penalties gave the Trojans their second 5-on-3 opportunity of the game and Cam Givens took advantage, burying a one-timer from the top of the left circle for a 2-1 lead.

“Having to work to kill off two 5-on-3’s makes it hard to get the offense going,” Sikkenga said. “We carried a lot of the play in the second period and we still came out of it down a goal. But we didn’t panic. Hockey is a simple game, keep pressure on them and hopefully they’ll make a mistake.”

Puffer goalie Jake Vander Lee came up big time-and-time again, finishing the night with 38 saves as TC Central had a 40-21 shot advantage. Carlisle finished with 18 saves for the Trojans.

Reeths-Puffer will now take on Mona Shores for the third time in the past three weeks. The Rockets won the first two meetings, 5-0 and 2-1.

“How great is Thursday night going to be?” Sikkenga said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, you’ve got to beat the best teams to get anywhere.”