The only question for the Division 2 #4 Rhinelander Hodags coming down to Schofield on Tuesday was their strength of schedule. The unbeaten-in-Wisconsin Hodags have only faced one other ranked team (a 5-4 win over Division 2 #3 Amery to open the season), and only one Division 1 opponent (a 4-1 win over Marshfield).
While the host D.C. Everest Evergreens had a good showing in the first period, the Hodags turned on the jets in the second and skated to a 7-3 win, improving to 7-0 in the state of Wisconsin and 7-1 overall.
Rhinelander opened the scoring at 11:18 of the first period. Layne Roeser hit Joey Belanger from behind their goal line, and Belanger raced up the left side boards. When the Everest defender stepped up to make a play on him, Belanger danced around him and came in alone on goalie Gavin Smith. Belanger was up to the task and found the top right corner of the net for the 1-0 lead.
That lead would be short lived however as Everest tied it up at the 12:46 mark. Noah Stachovak picked the pocket of a Hodag defenseman and made a quick pass to John Freidel on the edge of the left faceoff circle. Freidel one-timed it in and it was a tie game. The first period ended with Everest holding a 11-8 shot advantage, and a 1-1 tie.
The second period would belong to the Hodags however, as Everest made several poor outlet passes and other turnovers in their defensive zone. Everest ended up spending the majority of the second pinned in their own zone.
Rhinelander would extend the lead on a 2-on-3 zone entry. Finn Tulowitzky entered the zone and dropped the puck for AJ Turek who scored high on the blocker side to give the Hodags the 2-1 advantage.
Again though Everest would tie it up as Adam McKaig beat a pinching defenseman to the puck and came in all alone on goalie Tyler Kimmerling. McKaig won the battle and it was tied at 2-2. Unfortunately for the Evergreens that was their only quality scoring chance in the period.
The Hodags answered back however, with two goals in the span of 28 seconds. On the first Belanger found room in the faceoff circle and fired on net. It appeared that Smith made the save with two Hodags ready to pounce on rebounds, but the puck trickled in and Rhinelander had a 3-2 lead.
They would score again on the ensuing faceoff, after working the puck into the Everest zone, Leo Losch picked off a d-to-d pass behind the net and found Roeser out front to make it 4-2 as time wound down in the period. The Hodags outshot Everest 12-4 in the period.
Rhinelander would extend the lead at 3:29 of the third period. With Everest on the power play, on a break out the Everest forward dropped the puck back to the defenseman behind. In his race to the puck with Belanger, the Everest defender over skated it, leaving Belanger all alone to go in and score and make it 5-2.
Everest would answer back and cut the lead to 5-3 just after time expired on the power play. With some nice puck movement around the zone, Thomas Passineau hit McKaig with a pass in front of the net, and McKaig redirected it in to keep the Evergreens alive.
Eight minutes would pass before the next goal. On the initial faceoff after a Hodag penalty, Belanger would tally his fourth goal, and second short handed goal. The centers tied up on the faceoff and the puck trickled back toward the Everest D. Belanger shot out of his spot on the center hashmarks and beat the pinching defenseman to the puck to go in on a breakaway. Smith made the initial stop but Belanger got two more whacks it it before the defense caught back up, and that was enough to burry it for a 6-3 lead.
Before it was all done, Gavin Denis would tally an empty netter to make it 7-3 Hodags.
Kimmerling stopped 21 of 24 in the win for the Hodags. Smith stopped 23 of 29 in the loss for the Evergreens.
Despite the goal differential, the game was closely fought on both sides. If the Evergreens could limit their turnovers, especially in the defensive zone, they'd have been right in this game until the end.