By Greg Gielczyk
MUSKEGON–Neither coach is putting much emphasis on the two regular season games they played.
This is a new season, and the coaches are counseling their charges to focus on the business at hand when Reeths-Puffer meets Mona Shores in the MHSAA Division 2 regional quarterfinal at the Lakeshore Sports Center on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
Fifth-ranked Mona Shores received a first-round bye, and had the opportunity to watch as the Rockets opened up a big 4-0 lead in the first period and went on to eliminate the Lakeshore Badgers co-op squad, 5-0 in Monday night’s pre-regional.
Reeths-Puffer spread the wealth around, too, with five different players scoring goals.
Although on paper the Sailors seem to be the clear favorites to push on to the regional final, coach Chris Benedict adheres to the old adage that you can throw out the records at this time of year.
“They’re playing a lot better now,” Benedict said of the Rockets. “Every team’s fighting for their season. We’re not really looking at what happened (earlier in the season).
“We played them in our first game of the season, and then two months ago (and won, 8-0 both times). A lot has changed since then with them. We’re not going to go in overlooking them.
“It makes a team really dangerous when no one else thinks that they have a chance, and they’re the only ones that believe.”
Reeths-Puffer has nothing to lose with a 6-17-1 record, and the Rockets can play loose while the Sailors carry high expectations into the matchup with a 21-4 ledger along with their state ranking.
Trent Benedict leads the Sailors with 68 points accumulated on 41 goals and 27 assists. He spent much of the season as the state’s leading scorer.
But the Sailors also have Ty Langlois, who is second on the team with 51 points on 20 goals and 31 assists, and Jake Nanna with 43 points on 13 goals and 30 assists.
“We’re playing in our arena, and it’s playoff time. It’ll be a battle. It always is between Mona Shores and Reeths-Puffer,” Benedict said. “The records don’t matter. It usually is a hard-fought game.
“I think our guys have done a nice job of executing our systems. We’ve had letdowns in periods in all the games we’ve lost, just kind of not taken care of assignments and it’s cost us.
“Really, that’s what this time of year is all about, fine-tuning things. We need make sure that we control what we can control, stay out of the penalty box and taking advantage of our opportunities.”
Benedict said he doesn’t really have a top line, but in no surprise, it was Benedict’s line that scored the most points during the season. Langlois and Nanna skated on that line with him.
“I’ve got two solid, top lines and then a real solid third line,” added Benedict. “I have a fourth line that grinds and contributes as well.
“We’re pretty solid all around. Carter Dethloff has emerged as our number one goalie. But, all three goalies are capable. The guys have confidence in whoever is in net.”
Dethloff has been the goalie in 18 games this year, and has made 403 saves and has a 1.76 goals against average.
Puffer is counting on the experience it has gained playing stiff competition, including several ranked teams, to pay off in the playoffs.
“We are super experienced at the top, and not so experienced in the middle,” Rockets coach Ryan Martin said. “So, playing those better teams earlier in the season definitely sets you up for more success at the end of the season, I feel.
“Mona Shores does a lot of things well. They have some of the leading scorers in the state, including the state’s leading scorer for much of the seaon. They are definitely a high powered offense, because he’s not alone.
“They have two lines that can score really well, and a third line that chips in more than most teams third line. Their defensemen can score as well. Definitely, when you’re playing Mona Shores it’s all about trying to defend them.
“When you have as much skill as they (the Sailors) do, especially their top line, they’re just relentless. They just keep coming in waves. From a defensive perspective, it’s really trying to slow that down, and minimize their puck possession.”
Martin added that the Rockets are moving the puck better now than earlier in the season, when the seniors and more veteran players tried to do a little too much.
“As our younger guys have come along, we’ve become much more of a team,” said Martin. “We’re moving the puck better, and forechecking and applying pressure the last few games.
“Earlier in the season we were seeing lots and lots of shot deficits of great margins, and more recently we’ve been out-shooting teams, or been much closer.”
Puffer won a regional title just two years ago, in 2020, and carries a handful of players on this year’s roster that were on the roster then as freshmen.
The Sailors lost in the regional final two years ago to Traverse City Central, and then 3-2 to Byron Center last year.