The Northland Pines boys hockey team finally hit the ice for a game last week, beating Rhinelander 12-2 last Thursday and then Eau Claire North 7-3 Saturday.

“It was great to finally get a chance to play a game after three-plus weeks of practice,” said Pines coach David Cox. “I thought going into the game we were going to struggle to find a rhythm and it took two periods before we were able to take the game over. We have a few new faces on every line and defensive pairings so it was expected.”

Harmon Marien scored a natural hat trick with three goals in the third period to break the game open. Zach Maillette started the Eagles off with a beautiful goal in the slot on a catch-and-release shot beating the Hodag goalie over the buffer on the first of his three goals on the night. 

Jake Wielhouwer scored Pines’ second goal on a nice catch-and-release shot in the slot off a feed from Matt Szafranski. Hunter Bill finished the scoring with his first goal of his young career, assisted by Alex Sternhagen.

“The coaching staff was pleased with the play even if it was up and down most of the night. We played like we practice right now, some good followed by some bad,” said Cox. “The bright part is we can see some flashes of the systems and structure we are adding as the season progresses.”

Pines heavily outshot the Hodags early, but the Hodag offense capitalized in a five- minute stretch of the second to keep it close. 

“I have a lot of respect for Rhinelander coach Laggis and his program came in prepared and sticking to their game plan through two periods,” said Cox. “When we entered the third, we came out and put the game away with some real nice team play. The more physical Rhinelander became, it played to our advantage outskating them and with a solid job of puck movement we were able to exploit their defense.” 

Cox said the Eagles got great play out of the third unit of Andrew Hartwig, Jake Wielhouwer, Brett Nesbitt and Matt Szafranski.

“That group has been battling in practice every day for playing time and it has been a surprise to see them play as well as they have early,” said Cox. “We had several impressive offensive performances by our forwards. Areas of concern coming out of a game like this is our defensive core. We struggled to make the 18- foot pass all night and timing on the breakout never materialized. Sometimes the kids all want to make the big play and force the puck into areas that cause us all kinds of unnecessary struggles.”

Pines goalie Brett Wilkins finished with 23 saves on 25 shots and Mitch McCanles recorded one save in 6 minutes of play. 

The Eagles then traveled to Eau Claire for a noon game on Saturday. 

“It was a long day for sure and the kids responded with a big early season road win, dominating from the start,” said Cox. “That was a very good team we pinned back early and never took our foot off the gas until some garbage mop-up time late in the third.”

Pines put together two solid periods of hockey, jumping out to a 7-1 lead. 

Riley McGee scored from just inside the North blueline in the upper corner that stunned the ECN goalie to set the tone 5 minutes into the game. 

Marien followed up 2 minutes later on the powerplay on a nice tip-off of a shot by Gunner Schiffmann. 

“We work a lot on traffic in front of the goalie and tipping the puck into the net,” said Cox.

It was Marien again off a face-off win by Snedden to Maillette, who got a shot off the goaltender’s leg pad, creating a rebound that Marien battled the defender and goalie for to bang home a rebound goal. 

Then it was Snedden picking up his own blocked shot and slapping it past the North goalie. When the horn sounded, it was Pines 4-0 over North after the first period. 

“The Snedden, Maillette, Marien line has been solid since we had our first practice in November,” said Cox. “We have been tinkering with our lineup in practice, but the way these guys played today they are making it hard for us to change anything on lines 1 through 3.”

McGee made a long rim pass out to the neutral zone that Snedden corralled and strung the goalie across the goal line on a deke and slid a backhander into the net. 

The Pines defense then made one of its few mistakes on the day allowing an uncontested shot off an errant clearing pass that was tipped in the slot past Wilkins. 

Bill then jumped on a loose puck at the North blueline, creating a 2-0 with Schiffmann, who calmly deposited it past the North goalie less than a minute later for a short-handed goal. 

Finishing out the period it was Kevin John in tight, ripping a shot under the crossbar to finish the scoring for Pines on the day and forcing run time. Snedden and Maillette collected assists on the John goal. 

“We hit run time heading into the third period and things were flowing along nicely until things got a little chippy and we took three penalties and started to tire a bit,” said Cox.

North scored two late goals that came directly off Pines’ sticks when the Eagles had a chance to clear the puck. 

“Brett Wilkins deserved better as he made some real nice saves early in the game keeping North off the scoresheet and allowing our offense to take over,” said Cox. “Brett is so calm in the net and really compliments our defense. We are pretty young back there and he has put the defense on his back and carried us early this season when we have made a defensive miscue or poor pass.”

Wilkins finished with 26 saves on 29 shots. 

This week, Pines, 2-0, will face two conference foes in Tomahawk on the road on Tuesday and a vastly improved Medford team on Friday, Dec. 13, for the Eagles’ home opener at 7 p.m.

“The kids are super excited to play at home and keeping them focused for those two games will be a major point of emphasis before we travel to play Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay this Saturday (Dec. 14) night,” said Cox.

In preseason polls, Notre Dame was ranked second in Division 1 and Northland Pines was ranked second in Division 2.