Late-game heroics from Nik Boyer and a strong performance in the net from senior goalie Alex Moustakis kept Lakeland’s playoff run alive as the Thunderbirds defeated Wausau East at home, 2-1, Tuesday evening.
Lakeland hosted the Lumberjacks in the 8-9 game to open regional play of the WIAA Division II playoffs, and following the win, advanced to play Wausau West last night in a game that ended after press time.
The Thunderbirds got on the board in the first period on an unassisted goal from Jack Dern to take a 1-0 lead over East.
The 1-0 lead held until late in the second period, when East took advantage of the first penalty of the game and scored a power play goal to tie the score at 1-1.
The third period went scoreless until the final minutes, when Boyer took the puck up the right side of the rink and out-skated his defender to the goal, scoring the go-ahead goal for Lakeland, assisted by Dern and Tommy Berger.
With 50 seconds left in the game, Lakeland took a penalty in front of its own goal, and faced a 6-on-4 disadvantage as East pulled its goalie.
The Thunderbirds gave up a couple of shot attempts before securing the puck and firing it up the ice to run out the clock and extend the season with a playoff victory.
It was fitting the go-ahead goal came off the sticks of Boyer, Dern and Berger, as the trio has been a large part of Lakeland’s successes this season.
“Those are our three go-to guys,” head coach Ken Thanig said. “I moved Tommy up to forward for a couple of shifts just to get some offense generated, and that seemed to help.”
Thanig said he was able to move Berger up to a forward spot mainly because of Drew Trapp’s return to the ice. The defender had been sidelined with an injury for a large part of the season.
“It’s nice having him back because we have five defensemen again,” Thanig said. “That’s why I could move Tommy up to forward, otherwise it’s tough with only three back there.”
Following Lakeland’s go-ahead goal and after taking a penalty with under a minute remaining, Thanig took a timeout a got his squad prepared for the 6-on-4 disadvantage.
“I just told them to get it out of the zone,” Thanig said. “Don’t play around with it, don’t stickhandle in their zone, just get it and rifle it out down the ice, and they did.”
Boyer won the ensuing faceoff, but East was able to take the puck and fire a few shots at Moustakis before Lakeland cleared the zone. From there, the Thunderbirds didn’t allow another legitimate scoring chance.
“They never really had a chance once we got it out of the zone,” Thanig said.
Moustakis added another strong performance to a run of great games in goal, picking up the win after allowing the lone power play goal. The senior amassed 47 saves on 48 shot attempts, a .979 save percentage.
“He played an awesome game,” Thanig said. “We were a little sloppy with the puck in the defensive zone, which gave them more scoring opportunities.”
As Thanig said, while Lakeland was sloppy at times on defense, the majority of the looks for Wausau East were not great shot opportunities, though the volume was high.
“Quite a few of their shots came from the outside so I wasn’t too concerned, but they were throwing everything they could at our net,” he said.
East’s lone goal, the result of a power play, came on a rebound after Moustakis saved several shots in a row, and Thanig said Lakeland was doing a great job limiting second-chance opportunities prior to the penalty.
“Had we not taken the penalty, we would have been fine,” Thanig said. “At even strength, they were getting a lot of shots, but they weren’t great looks so I wasn’t too concerned.”
With the first penalty coming late in the second period, it was a much different game than the last time these two teams squared off, when Lakeland won 5-1 and scored three power play goals.
“The first time against them, we had a lot of power play opportunities, and we didn’t get one tonight,” Thanig said. “In the playoffs, they usually let more go, and they don’t call it as tight unless it’s really blatant.”
As Thanig said, it might not have been Lakeland’s strongest performance of the year, but in the playoffs, the victory is all that matters.
“Bottom line, at this point a win is a win, and if you win, you move on, if you don’t you’re done,” Thanig said. “I don’t think it was one of our better games, but we did just enough to win.”
The win sent Lakeland to the regional semifinal, where the Thunderbirds will face the top-seeded Wausau West Warriors on the road tonight.
Thanig, who watched West play a week ago, said the team lives up to its one seed.
“They’re a very good team,” Thanig said. “They’ve got probably one of the best – if not the best – forwards in the state [Kevin Conley] on their team.”
Conley, a junior, has already committed to play hockey at Denver University.
Thanig said Lakeland needed to bring its best effort to advance in the playoffs.
“They’ll be a really tough team to beat, and we’ll have to play our best,” Thanig said. “It will be a tough game.”
UPDATE 2/20, 1:20 p.m.:
Due to impending weather, Thursday night's playoff hockey game against Wausau West has been rescheduled for Friday night, Feb. 21, 6 p.m. at Marathon Park Ice Arena.
See Tuesday’s Lakeland Times and www.lakelandtimes.com for a full recap of the playoff match-up.
Jim Oxley may be reached via email at email@example.com.