Spartans get playoff win
The end has come to the Somerset hockey season, but not before the Spartans showed they are ready to turn up their play next season.
After being mired in a slump through the second half of the season, the Spartans closed out the season with two efforts with increased energy and enthusiasm in the WIAA playoffs.
Somerset won its opening game in the WIAA playoffs last Tuesday, beating Spooner 3-1. That snapped a nine-game winless streak for the Spartans that dated back to Jan. 6.
With the win the Spartans advanced to the WIAA regional finals in Hudson. Hudson was able to earn a 9-1 win, but the Spartans were able to stay competitive with the high-powered Raiders for much of the game.
The Spartans had 12 days between their final regular season game and the playoff opener against Spooner. They put the time to good use, looking more energetic than they had in their final regular season games.
Spooner was able to produce very little offensive pressure as the Spartans were much better at controlling the puck in Tuesday's game. The Spartans were winning more one-on-one battles and that resulted in the team's first goal.
Junior Josh Baillargeon won a battle in the corner for the puck. He centered the puck to freshman Austin Miller, who was slicing hard between the circles toward the Spooner net. The pass was perfectly placed and Miller steered the puck past Spooner goalie Jarett Sykes into the net.
Miller is one of several Spartan freshmen who has seen extensive ice time in recent weeks because of injuries. The progress of the freshmen is another reason that coach Dan Gilkerson thinks the Spartans will be considerably better next season.
Four minutes after Miller scored, the Spartans struck again. The puck was in the Spartans' defensive zone, when the puck was sent to a defenseman at the point. His feet got tangled and he stumbled. Spartan forward Cory Erchul was charging out to pressure the point. He scooped up the free puck on a breakaway. He fought of the check attempt of the other Spooner defenseman. As he skated between the circles, he snapped a shot that cleanly beat Sykes.
"Erchul has really stepped it up in the second half (of the season)," Gilkerson said.
The Spartans outshot Spooner 40 to 17 in the game, but neither team scored again until late in the third period. Spooner scored with 5:46 left in regulation to cut the lead to 2-1.
The Spartans locked up the win when Sean Conrad scored an empty net goal with one minute left on the clock.
Senior Lance Belisle earned the win in goal for the Spartans, stopping 17 of 18 Spooner shots. This is Belisle's first win in net since he beat Webster in his freshman season.
This was the Spartans' seventh win of the season.
The win moved the Spartans into the second round of the tournament bracket against Hudson. The Spartans had recently been given a whipping by the Raiders, losing 11-0. While the score ended up 9-1 in Thursday's game, it was a far different result on the ice.
The Spartans were much more competitive in the second go-around with the Raiders. The Spartans got a power play goal from Erchul 11:20 into the first period to cut Hudson's lead to 2-1.
The Raiders would add one more goal late in the first period, then score twice, 19 seconds apart, early in the second period. Gilkerson brought in Belisle to replace starting goalie Dylan Rivard at that point.
"It wasn't that Dylan was playing badly. We put Lance in to try to slow things down and stop (Hudson's) momentum," Gilkerson said.
The move worked. Belisle made several big stops and the score remained 5-1 through the rest of the second period. Hudson continued to play its top lines and scored four goals in the third period.
Hudson's depth at forward is the team's main strength.
"They just keep coming at you," Gilkerson said. "You can't key on one guy."
Hudson ended up generating 65 shots in Thursday's game, compared to 16 shots for the Spartans.
Somerset finishes the season with a 7-13-2 record. The Spartans graduate two seniors, Belisle and forward Scot Jorgenson. Gilkerson said the team is ready to make a big step forward next season.
"I'm excited for next year. From a developmental standpoint, a lot of them improved this year," Gilkerson said.
How much the Spartans improve will depend on the players' willingness to work in the off-season.
"It'll be the strength and speed aspect that we need to work on," Gilkerson said. "Some of that will come with age and a summer of working hard."