For the first time since 2017, the Waunakee boys’ hockey team will be raising a conference championship banner in the Ice Pond.
“We haven’t been conference champions in a while…” said Waunakee goaltender Hunter Beck. “It just feels really good to get one with the boys.”
After falling to the Thunderbirds a week ago, the Warriors’ game on Thursday against the second-place Eagles of Sauk Prairie became a de-facto Badger North title game. With the win, Waunakee secured the 2019-20 Badger North Conference Title.
Sauk Prairie 2
Though both teams came out of the gate fast-paced, neither side was particularly effective at putting the puck in the back of the net in the first. As the opening period wore on, Sauk Prairie put more and more pressure on Waunakee’s goal.
In goal, Beck remained strong despite the onslaught of shots sent in his direction.
“He held us in there in the first period,” Waunakee’s Head Coach Eric Olson said of Beck. “We were getting barraged, and he held us in.”
Before the period was out, however, the Eagles did manage to sneak one of their 13 first-period shots past Beck to take a 1-0 lead heading into the second. Only trailing by one goal proved to be a boon for the Warriors, who were outshot 13 to 5 in the period.
“I couldn’t have done it without my team,” Beck said of the Warriors staying close despite being outshot. “It for sure helped a lot just to keep them at that one goal going into the second. It was really big.”
“Our defensive corps played well; we made some adjustments in between the period. That’s why we started taking over a little bit in the second period…” added Olson. “I think we started to skate downhill.”
Isaac Nett scored the equalizer midway through the period when he and Steven Pasinato broke away on a two-on-one, getting a perfectly-placed backhanded assist from Pasinato, with a secondary assist coming from Danny Reis.
It took the Eagles less than a minute to retaliate, going back up by a goal with 7:57 remaining until the second intermission. A poised Waunakee team remained unfazed.
“I knew we had good leadership in the room,” Olson said. “We didn’t panic; we knew we could score goals.”
In a very clean game, only twice did a player – both times a Sauk Prairie player – make a trip to the penalty box. The first of those two occasions came with 5:42 to play in the second, and Waunakee quickly took advantage.
Against a stellar Eagle penalty-kill unit that had allowed only three power-play goals all season, it took only 38 seconds for the Warriors to even the score.
Drew Christianson buried the shot that beat Sauk Prairie’s goalie, evening the game at 2-2.
“I’m telling you; we’ve got a very good power play…” added Olson. “We move the puck around pretty well. That rubber goes around tic-tac-toe, and we’ve got some snipers on that power-play unit. We showed that tonight.”
The tie score remained as time expired in the second, leaving the third period to be the decider.
Waunakee started the period on the power play, but couldn’t score the go-ahead goal with a one-man advantage.
The Warriors third goal of the night finally with 11:46 came off the stick of Reis, with assists from Pasinato and Nett.
Now in front for the first time all night, it was up to Waunakee’s defense to finish the job. The Warriors spent much of the final minutes attacking, rarely letting the puck near their side of the rink.
“We were very smart with our decision-making,” Beck said of the difference between the two teams late. “We made a lot of strong plays in the end… We just all-around had more grit at the end of the game.”
As minutes remaining turned into seconds remaining, Waunakee continued to deny the Eagles a chance to send the game into overtime. With 30 seconds to play, Sauk Prairie made one final push, pulling their goaltender.
The Eagles’ push ultimately fell short, and the Warriors were conference champions when time expired.
“That was our number one goal through the start of our year: to win our conference…” added Olson. “I have to hand it to all our guys. All our guys.”
Beck made a total of 29 saves in goal to notch his third victory of the season.
With the Badger North title in hand, Waunakee - now 15-7-0 (8-1-0 Badger North) - has two games remaining on their regular-season schedule. The Warriors head to Madison West on Saturday before returning to the Ice Pond for their season finale against Reedsburg/Wisconsin Dells on Tuesday. The puck is scheduled to drop against the Cheavers at 7:15 p.m.