The Northland Pines boys hockey team started the new year with a victory, beating Wisconsin Rapids 4-1 in a nonconference game at the  SWC Recreation Building  in Rapids last Saturday.

“It is really hard to win games in January and especially on the road against a Valley opponent like Wisconsin Rapids,” said Pines coach David Cox. “They are a very proud program that has a lot of history and they really played well against us.” 

Cox noted it was the seventh game on the road out of the past eight for the Eagles, which is hard on a team.

“It is time to get back home and play in front of our fans,” said Cox. “It is hard to create your own energy night after night when on the road. I thought the kids played well given the early morning road trip and emotions coming off a big couple of games the past two weeks with Christmas and New Years sandwiched in there as well.” 

Cox said the coaches changed up the line combinations, so the Eagles weren’t as fluid and structured as they have been in the past.

“But these guys handled a little adversity and showed great workmanship attitudes and pushed through it,” said Cox.  “Obviously, it was not a well-oiled machine out there, but the kids took care of business when Rapids continued to battle and keep the game close until we pulled away in the second period.” 

Cox said the focus was to play more disciplined hockey and play with different line combinations and personnel groupings. 

“Just racking up wins and not setting goals and challenging our players does not allow the growth we need to go deep into the playoffs,” said Cox. 

Cox said the Eagles’ defense played well in front of goalie Brett Wilkins all game, allowing only two or three good clean shots all evening on him.

“Our offense dominated, outshooting Rapids 32-16 and really carried the play all game long,” said Cox. 

He said the coaches also challenged the players this week to go 10-for-10 on the penalty kill and they were 4-for-4 after the one game.

“One stat that does not show up in the box score is the effort and discipline it takes to kill penalties,” said Cox. “Tucker Wittkopf and Gunnar Schiffmann have been work horses the past two weeks killing penalties defensively for us. We are working hard at cleaning up this area of our game right now and focusing on the little things for the next couple of weeks. Eliminating mistakes is the focus and playing consistent hockey.” 

While the Eagles started  slow against Wisconsin Rapids, Harmon Marien  scored on a blast from the slot on a nice feed from Zach Maillette and Brady Snedden. 

“Maillette did a nice job of delaying on a rush and hit Marien in stride streaking in the high slot for the shot past a helpless Rapids goaltender,” said Cox. “That was a nice goal that we have been working on in practice for three years. It is great to see the kids be rewarded for their work in practice and that was a direct result of their diligence”. 

Snedden scored Pines’ second goal shortly after on an assist from Marien and Witt­kopf. 

“Harmon’s speed caused problems for the Rapids defense all night, stretching them down the ice and passing to Snedden for a redirected pass into the back of the net,” said Cox. “Tucker got them started in our defensive zone and those two just went hard to the net, taking the Rapids defenders right to the posts. That was a great example of heads up communication and hungry guys going to the net. “

Pines gave up its only goal about 30 seconds later trying to get the puck out of its own zone and eventually Rapids put one past Wilkins. 

“Brett really had no chance on that one when we left their best player alone in the slot with both of our defensemen behind the goal line,” said Cox. “But Brett continued his solid play in the net and shut the door on Rapids the rest of the way.” 

It was tight throughout second period until Lochlan Siegmeier was able to slide a low sinking bullet past the Rapids tender off the pass of Max Brown and Tyler Hunt. 

“That was a nice play off a sustained forecheck that Hunt was able to buy enough time to feed Brown in the slot, patiently making the extra pass we always talk about making in practice,” said Cox. “Max hit Lochlan in ‘his spot,’ down low on the back side and he finished it off.”

Pines scored two more times in the second period, although both were disallowed.

“It took us a while to jell,  but once we did the game just never broke loose for us and you have to give Rapids credit for staying with us and working their tails off to keep within striking distance,” said Cox. 

Siegmeier again found  the net in the third period that iced it for Pines. The score came off a face-off win by Hunt, and Siegmeier  grabbed the loose puck and ripped it past a startled Rapids goalie for the final tally to make it 4-1. 

“I said it before, but winning in January in high school hockey is not easy. The kids played hard and have a bull’s-eye on their back every game they play,” said Cox. “We are ranked eighth in the polls and whoever we play brings their ‘A’ game against us.”

Pines, 12-2 overall and  5-0 in the Great Northern Conference (GNC), will host Antigo this Thursday, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. The Red Robins are 6-7-1 overall and 4-1 in the GNC. The two teams tied for the conference title last year.

“We are taking them one at a time now focusing on Antigo Thursday. I won’t have to say much to the kids this week as we prepare for our rivals to the south, said Cox. “We have had our share of history with the Red Robbins and expect it to be another battle. Most importantly, it will be great to get back home and playing in front of our home crowd. We hope we get some great support as we hit the middle of our season and ramp up to the conference tournament series and Pines Classic Jan. 25-26.”

The Northland Pines junior varsity lost 4-2 in Calumet, Mich., last Thursday and defeated Wisconsin Rapids 7-4 Saturday. The junior varsity will travel to Marquette, Mich., on Tuesday of this week and will host Antigo prior to the varsity game this Thursday.