Eagles’ freshman Michael Maillette fired a wrist shot toward the Rhinelander goalie in the first period.
Eagles’ freshman Michael Maillette fired a wrist shot toward the Rhinelander goalie in the first period.
The Northland Pines boys hockey team ran into a tough Rhinelander squad in the WIAA Division 2 Sectional semifinal last Tuesday at the Dome, with the Hodags coming out on top 6-4.

“It is always a tough night when your season ends,” said Pines coach David Cox. “I have been doing this for 37 years and it is never easy whether it is mini-mites or high school. You build a team, it becomes a family and it is over in a flash. There is never enough time in a season to accomplish all the goals as a coach to make the best team out of the players you have.” 

Rhinelander punched their ticket to the Sectional final with a great team effort, getting the big goal when Pines couldn’t and it echoed the first two meetings between these two teams in December and January. The Hodags lost to Lakeland 4-1 Saturday in the Sectional final.

“We really struggled right out of the gate taking penalties and not adjusting to the way the game was going to be called,” said Cox. 

After a scoreless first period in a back-and-forth game, the first goal was not scored until the 10-minute mark on a Rhinelander powerplay — the first of three the Hodags would get on the night. 

“I told the coaches that the first goal would set the tone and it was not the goal, but rather the penalty that was called and the way in which we just broke down after taking so many gut punches by the stripes in a big game that really started three games in a row of crazy calls,” said Cox. 

Just 30 seconds later, the Hodags caught the Pines players still regrouping to take a 2-0 lead scoring a 5- on-5 goal and taking control. 

“That is the mark of a good team that saw us struggling and they just took over for a couple minutes and put us on our heels,” said Cox. “Down 2-0 and the way things were going, we needed something positive and I think in a make up call by the officials, we were able to score on the powerplay.”

Max Brown got the goal to get the game to 2-1. 

As the momentum switched, Pines started to catch a little fire and off a face off, Luke Wessel grabbed a loose puck at the blue line and shot a wrist shot that snuck under the cross bar to tie it at 2-2. 

“We really came on at this point and were taking over and dominating, flipping the whole game,” said Cox. “However, once again it was a 5-minute major on a questionable call, let alone calling a major on the play, that totally changed the game.”

Rhinelander would score with 29 seconds left in the period on the power-play and Pines once again faced an uphill battle at 4-2.

The Eagles’ Michael Maillette scored a short handed 2-on-1 with Riley McGee assisting to get the game to 4-3, but 30 seconds later on a powerplay, Rhinelander scored again and the two-goal lead for a third time was too much to recover from. 

Maillette scored the last goal for Pines after the Eagles pulled goalie Mitch McCanles but it was too late. 

“That was a tough pill to swallow there. We really felt we were fighting a battle we were never going to win,” said Cox.

McCanles finished with 21 saves and Rhinelander goalie Garrett Kulhanek saved 17 Pines’ shots on the night. 

“I never like to lose, but I wish Coach Laggis and his squad the best of luck,” said Cox. “Coach Laggis has been coaching a long time in a program that played in what I believe was the first Sectional final in their modern-day hockey history. Well deserved!”

Pines finished 6-1 in the regular season in the Great Northern Conference and 11-5 overall.

“What a crazy year that saw us have a shortened season by three weeks, a regionalized game schedule and coming to the rink every day trying to prepare in fear that it might be our last,” said Cox. “As I stated before, it may not be the ending that we wanted but at least we got to play out our entire season. I know that sounds redundant, but Wisconsin is the only school in the United States that I am aware of that was allowed to play this winter. Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, all states that never had a season or are just starting a very abbreviated one, so I guess we should count our blessings that we had the opportunity to play.”

Cox said his players battled through the season, including seniors Trevor Romatoski, Riley McGee, Jacob Wielhouwer, Max Brown and Cooper Cox.

“This was a special group that battled some incredible hurdles that few Pines’ teams over the years have ever had to battle,” said Cox. “I know as a program we do not ever want to deal with masks and spit guards ever again.”

Cox also thanked those who support the program.

“I would like to thank all of the folks that help us put on our season each year. Thank you to the administration and Pines Athletic Department for making this season happen. Our school, students and staff help support and attend our games all season and it is appreciated. To our area businesses and Pines Booster backers, we thank you for your support and financial backing of our team and school. Parents we are so thankful for all you do for your children and the program. It is a special program that has a tradition unparalleled in support in such a small community. We have built a tradition that never graduates, it just passes the torch to the next team, business, teammate and generation,” said Cox.