Maco Balkovec didn’t even have to think about it.
Before the first puck dropped this season, if the Whitefish Bay/Nicolet/Shorewood co-op had been told his team would be tied at 1 entering the third period of a quarterfinal of the WIAA boys hockey state tournament – a place the team had never been - against a talented Eau Claire Memorial team, “I’d take it right there,” he said. “Thank you.”
Unfortunately for Balkovec, the Storm ran out of magic a little more than a minute later. A turnover deep in their own zone proved costly as Old Abes junior Jacob Bresser fired home the go-ahead goal, and despite a flurry of scoring chances down the stretch, the Storm couldn’t solve junior goaltender Alex Geving again as Eau Claire held on for a 2-1 victory Thursday at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.
“It was a typical playoff game,” Balkovec said. “A one-goal game, and this comes down to … it’s a game of mistakes. Someone’s going to make one and be able to capitalize. We had a couple of cherry chances and we couldn’t bury it. It’s unfortunate, it’s heartbreaking, but only one team that comes here gets to end their season with a victory.”
Bresser, the Old Abes’ leading scorer with 39 goals and 62 total points, was the beneficiary of an unforced error when Storm junior defenseman Colin Downing flipped the puck straight into the side boards while starting to bring it up the ice, only to watch it die right in front of Bresser.
“A lot of things were going on, a lot of pressure,” Downing said. “I was just trying to make a play. The boards here, we knew they were old boards and soft boards, I was expecting the puck to go more up the ice than it did.”
After that, there was little Downing could do as Bresser scooped up the gift for a 1-on-1 chance against Storm junior goaltender Sean Leahy 1:16 into the third period.
“It squirted out unexpectedly and I was pretty excited about it,” Bresser said. “I just tried to get a shot off as quick as I could, and I knew (Leahy) was a little weaker 5-hole so I just put it there.”
Balkovec, though, said the turnover was just the last in a string of mistakes to start the third.
“We had two chances earlier on in that shift to get the puck deep in neutral, which is what we were trying to do – keep the puck as far away from our net as we can, because they have two of the best lines in the state,” Balkovec said. “… You can zero in on the turnover, but the fact that we did not get the puck deep twice when two of our forwards had good chances to do that and didn’t, I think that’s what led to it.”
Despite a lack of state tournament experience (Eau Claire, meanwhile, has qualified for state in seven of the past nine seasons, including a championship in 2008), the senior-led Storm (22-5-1) proved resilient, but at times struggled find an offensive rhythm. It didn’t help that they were missing leading scorer Djordje Torbica, who was suspended for an athletic code violation following a 4-3 sectional final win against Waukesha.
“What team in the state isn’t going to be affected by having the leading scorer taken off their roster?” Balkovec said of the senior center, who tallied 57 points this season. “That’s a no-brainer, but unfortunately that’s one of the things that, when dealing with high school athletics, you’re going to face. … We’re not here without him. We don’t win 22 games without him.”
After a scoreless first period, the Old Abes (21-6-1) broke through to take the lead 4:06 into the second period. Leahy stopped a slapper from sophomore Kadin Machusak from the left circle but couldn’t control the rebound. Junior Charley Grasskamp managed to collect the puck from a scrum in front of Leahy, took it behind the net and beat Leahy to the opposite post for his 21st goal of the season 4:06 in.
The Storm regrouped quickly, taking advantage of the first power play of the game to even the score 4:26 later. After Eau Claire managed to clear the zone, senior defenseman Thomas Aiken retreated to collect the puck, then wove his way up the right side and unleashed an unassisted one-timer past Geving for his ninth goal and 50th point of the season.
“I saw that their forwards were changing, so I knew I’d have a little bit of space,” Aiken said. “I just grabbed the puck and started to carry it, found some open space. We talked all game about getting shots on goal, so I just shot it and good things happened.”
Aiken, one of eight finalists for state player of the year, state Player of the Year, “is a great player,” Eau Claire coach Mike Schwengler said. “… The whole thing was about trying to control (him). If a team’s going to beat you, you don’t want their best player to beat you, so it was a matter of keeping the puck away from him, forcing it down the sides to our pressure.”
The strategy worked as Eau Claire killed off two more power plays in dominant fashion. Geving, meanwhile, stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced. Leahy also was impressive, stopping 25 of the 27 shots he faced.
While disappointed in the outcome, Balkovec may have been even more emotional about coaching the Storm’s nine seniors for the last time. They were freshmen when Balkovec arrived four years ago to begin building the program, and aside from qualifying for state, the Storm also won their first-ever North Shore Conference title this season.
“These guys have been here with us since we came,” he said. “They bought in, and it was awesome. (It was a) great ride. We just have such a great group of seniors.... Just a really, really cool class, and those don’t come along very often, so it’s really special.”
For his part, Aiken said he wasn’t going to dwell on the loss too long.
“This one’s going to sting right now,” Aiken said “… But when you look back on the season as a whole, these guys are going to be really proud of what this team did and how far we brought this program. I think those are the things I’ll remember, not a tough loss.”
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