Rockford hockey battles conference champs to end

Friday night, Feb. 25, the Rockford varsity hockey team took on the Cougars from Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the final regular season finale for both teams. Catholic Central, the top ranked team in the west side of the state, chose this night as their Senior Night celebration. They have a veteran squad this year, as they are graduating 12 seniors, and have had a great season with only one blemish during conference play this year. So this game was going to be a tremendous test for the Rams as they prepare for the post season.

Rams senior Thomas Soupal outskates two Grand Rapids Catholic Central players. Photo by MICHELE VANDERVELDE

It was apparent that the Rams came out wanting to prove that they have improved dramatically since the last time these two teams played. The Cougars are a very quick team, but Rockford was there at every turn to pressure the puck and frustrate the high-powered Cougar offense.

About five minutes into the game, one of the very quick Catholic Central forwards did get behind the defense and was able to get on the scoreboard with a quick shot over goaltender Jake Rekucki’s shoulder into the net. Rockford continued to pound away, getting a couple quality scoring chances in the first, but was unable to light the lamp.

At the 6:24 mark, Catholic Central went up 2-0 with another great shot into the Rockford net. Both teams traded scoring chances for the rest of the period and went to their locker rooms with the score, Cougars 2 and Rockford 0.

Rockford came out in the second, ratcheting up the pressure on the Catholic Central goaltender, but he continued to turn away each of their shots. The game continued the fast pace with both teams displaying a high level of play.

Rockford goalie Jake Rekucki makes a glove save to keep the Rams in the game. Photo by MICHELE VANDERVELDE

Midway through the period, Catholic Central scored an even-strength goal to go up 3-0. The Cougars shortly came back with another goal less than a minute later to go up 4-0. It would have been easy for the Rams to give up at that point. But proudly, Rockford had nothing to do with giving up, and the last few minutes of the second period were controlled by the Rams. It appeared that they had something to build upon going into the third period.

Both teams came out in the third with an aggressive, but clean, brand of hockey. Just two minutes into the third, Rockford finally found a way to get the puck in the net and get on the scoreboard. Erik Datema, while driving hard to the Cougar net, buried the puck in the back by picking up a rebound off the shot of Nathan Hill, who, along with Justin Ullrey, was credited with assists.

Rockford turned up the pressure and it appeared that Catholic Central realized that Rockford was not going to lie down for this one. Midway through the final period, Rockford got on the board again when Zach Vandawater got a pass to Cam Bathum, who slid to the middle of the high slot and fired a blistering slap shot that was stopped by the Catholic Central goalie. Immediately, Austin Cantu pounced on the rebound and buried the puck in the back of the net to trim the Catholic Central lead to two goals.

Ram goalie Todd Millar concentrates as he prepares for a save. Photo by MICHELE VANDERVELDE

Rockford, smelling an opportunity to capitalize on their momentum, played an aggressive offensive style, putting pressure on the Cougar defense. With just over two minutes left in the game, Datema got his second goal of the game with assists going to Hill and Ullrey.

Only down by one goal, Rockford called a timeout and it was time to set up the offense to get the puck in deep, pull the goalie, and work on tying up the game. The Rams were able to get the puck in deep in the Catholic Central zone. They were able to get their goaltender pulled. But unfortunately, time ran out before they were able to put up the tying goal. This was one game that felt like Rockford just ran out of time and, had the game had gone a bit longer, the result could have definitely been different.

After a well-played game by both teams, each will begin their respective state championship runs this week. Tuesday, March 1, Catholic Central took on Kenowa Hills, while Thursday, March 3, Rockford travels to Traverse City and will take on the winner of the Traverse City West/Manistee game.

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