GAYLORD, Mich. – Sometimes the greatest offense is no match for a goaltender at the top of his game. The Escanaba Eskymos entered the Division II regional final against Saginaw Heritage with the best goal-scoring offense in school history and had numerous scoring chances throughout the game. It just wasn’t their day as the Hawks’ hot goaltender Kevin Cressey stonewalled the Eskymos and won the Saturday afternoon contest 2-1.
Cressey was absolutely electric in net. Even when seemingly caught out of position, the junior netminder was able to stretch back across the net for a glove save. Even on his back, flopping around in Dominik Hasek-like fashion, Cressey was able to keep the puck out of the net despite the Eskymos’ best efforts.
“He’s just playing real well right now. He’s really stepped it up big in the playoffs,” said Heritage head coach JJ Bamberger of his goaltender. “He has been our best player in all three of our postseason victories and he was definitely the difference tonight. Escanaba’s goaltender (Nick LeMire) played really well too. I know he’d probably like to have that last one back, but he made a lot of big saves himself.”
Against sophomore Levi Wunder, the most prolific single-season goal scorer in Escanaba school history and a line that also included hot gloves’ seniors Nick Vandermissen and Jake Eastin, Cressey was particularly fantastic. He stopped Wunder’s backhand shot at the front door and slammed it shut on the back-end when he tried a quick wrap-around. Cressey didn’t even flinch when Wunder had his best chance of the game, a one-on-goaltender breakway as he raced in alone and ripped a clear shot that went banging off the post.
Escanaba’s chances on net were so good that all head coach Tim McCarthy could do was chalk it up to the supernatural.
“We took a lot of shots and had a lot of opportunities. it just has to be a curse or something in the rink because we had so many missed opportunities down there. We controlled the game and we just couldn’t put the puck in the net,” he said. “Maybe we got a little panicky. We played well but Saginaw Heritage played awesome. They put a lot of pressure on us and give their goaltender a lot of credit because he really kept us out of there.”
Saginaw got on the board 5:45 into the first period off an Eskymos’ turnover as Thomas Munoz sent it home, banging it off the post and past LeMire.
The goal came following a five-on three powerplay opportunity for Escanaba that lasted 1:15 but couldn’t be converted.
Cressey, in fact was at his best when the Hawks were shorthanded, and they were quite often in the first period.
“The penalties were 6-0 there for a while and they had that five-on-three so our special teams were really good,” said Bamberger. “Later when we didn’t score on our five-on-three, we were a little lax, but then we scored a shorthanded goal, so special teams were definitely the difference in the game.”
After a scoreless second period in which Wunder was brick walled on his breakaway attempt, Escanaba got on the board just over four minutes into the third period. Derek Challier scored from the faceoff circle while Cressey was screened.
With the momentum back in Escanaba’s favor, things looked good. The Eskymos killed off a Saginaw five-on-three and with just over four minutes to go, received another power-play opportunity when the Hawks were called for too many men on the ice. It was all set-up for the Eskymos to escape with the victory.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The Hawks cleared the puck but with their group of hard, fast skaters, they were able to soar down the ice and regain possession before Tyler Angers inexplicably sent it home for a back-breaking shorthanded goal.
“They came down and nobody picked up the man,” said McCarthy. “Basically, he took a weak shot down low on the ice and I don’t know if LeMire was screened but nobody picked the kid up. We should have taken him higher up on it. It’s just one of those things. Toy look at all the hard shots we took and Nicky played outstanding when we needed him.
“It was just a couple fluke goals. Even the first one that they got on us – that was down low and just off kilter. It just caught the inside of the post and went in.”
The Eskymos pulled LeMire with about 50 seconds remaining and in the final seconds Wunder stole the puck and raced in for a final chance but the horn sounded before he could get a shot off.
It was a shocking end to an otherwise incredible season for the Eskymos.
For Bamberger and the Hawks, however, this victory was only the beginning.
“Regional championships are nice,” Bamberger said. “Our goal every year is to get to the final four and we’ve been there two other times since I’ve been here.”