Plymouth — Winning a state championship, especially a program’s first, is supposed to be difficult.
But Hartland made it look easy, at least for two and a half periods.
That’s how it seems when you score with your team on a two-man disadvantage to take a 3-0 lead midway through the second period en route to a 4-2 victory over Trenton in the Division 2 state title game on Saturday morning at USA Hockey Arena.
“There’s no better feeling,” Hartland coach Rick Gadwa said. “There’s lot of pride. It’s a special feeling. There’s no ‘me.’ It’s ‘us,’ it’s ‘Hartland,’ it’s huge, it’s a lot of work and a lot of time.”
Hartland (24-6-1) drew first blood midway through the first period with a nifty goal from senior forward Jake Behnke. Junior forward Joey Larson stole the puck in Trenton’s end and carried it in front of Trenton’s goal, dragging defenders with him, and then slid it back into the space he had just vacated to a waiting Behnke coming out from the boards. Trenton (20-9-2) goalie Joey Cormier went down and Behnke strung him out to the other side of the goal, firing high into the net.
“If we stuck to our system, we knew good things would happen,” Behnke said. “Our line’s been clicking lately, and all of us have been getting pucks to the net, and you know anything can happen especially with playoff hockey.”
Behnke added the backbreaking, short-handed, 5-on-3 goal in the second period that made it 3-0.
“Maybe when I was really young,” Behnke said when asked if he had ever scored when his team had a two-man disadvantage. “I was kind of shocked I had that opportunity.”
“That one hurt,” Trenton coach Chad Clements said. “We were trying so hard to get a goal, maybe push a little offensively, got a bad bounce and they end up with the breakaway. That hurt us.”
Earlier in the second period, Hartland had made it 2-0 when senior defenseman Jake DeYoung flipped the puck into the neutral zone where a Trenton defender was never able to get control because senior forward Josh Albring stole it for Hartland and raced into Trenton’s defensive zone. Albring deked forehand and buried it backhand for the game’s prettiest goal.
“It (the goal) doesn’t mean a whole lot to me personally,” Albring said. “The boys just kept pushing hard and we knew they would come eventually, and fortunately, it happened for me. I saw the puck was chipped out and it turned into a footrace. I slowed down a bit, just to make him (the defender) think he was going to be able to get it and at the last second I tried to lift his stick and see if I could get the puck and I did and made a quick move to the net.”
DeYoung led a defensive unit this year in which he was the only returning starter.
“I’ve always had older kids in front of me,” DeYoung said. “Really great role models taught me a lot about the game and how to play and how to be a man out on the ice and how to do your job, and I guess after all those guys left I kind of took it as a responsibility to preach that down to the young guys coming and show them exactly how I was taught by the guys before me.”
“Was our D questioned throughout the year?” Gadwa asked. “Absolutely, maybe even by this coaching staff. At the same time, Jake DeYoung led his D-corps and if you watched today, blocking shots, taking sticks, playing on the walls, that’s good stuff. And that’s what wins championships.”
Late in the second period, Larson collected a pass from Behnke and flipped it towards the net. Cormier got a piece of it, but the puck snuck past him to make it 4-0 Hartland late in the second period, seemingly sealing it with an entire period left to go.
But then that last half period happened.
Junior forward Nolan Szczepaniak scored a power-play goal midway through the third for Trenton to make it 4-1, and with 2:05 left in the game, sophomore forward Brandon Clark scored another power-play goal for Trenton on a net-scrum with an assist from Stanley to make it 4-2. The last two minutes were frantic, but Trenton, which has won 14 state hockey championships, never really came close to pulling within one.
“It was our last period, it was do or die,” Trenton’s senior captain Donte DiPonio said about the third. “We gave it all we had. It’s our last time putting on the jersey, we had to give it our all.”
Senior forward Drew Welsch is a Mr. Hockey candidate for Trenton, but Hartland’s defense nearly took him out of the game.
“They would have a few guys on me every time I had the puck,” Welsch said. “So, I had to move it and get open.”
The win avenges an 8-3 loss for Hartland when it met Trenton in the 2014 title game.
“Every single one of these guys, they saw that game,” Gadwa said. “And any time you can grab an edge, you take it. The program’s come a long way. These guys have been together a long time. I think that consistency is very important.”
It’s not just important, it wins championships.
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer