Prior to tonight's game, the #2 seed Onalaska Hilltoppers converted an incredible 43.1% of their power play chances in the regular season and their first two playoff contests.
After today's game, that percentage dropped just a tad, but a pair of Hilltopper goals was the difference as Onalaska earned its third state trip with a 3-1 win over fourth-seeded West Salem in the Sectional 4 title game held at the South Wood County Rec Center.
After a West Salem penalty just over four minutes into the match, the Hilltoppers cashed in a mere 19 seconds into the man advantage. Caleb Blank grabbed a pass at the left point and skated toward the middle of the ice before firing a shot through heavy traffic that beat WS goalie Julian Grosskopf high on the blocker side for a 1-0 lead. John Gargaro got an assist on the play.
"(Grosskopf) didn't even see the puck, with the screen in front," commented West Salem coach Bob Monroe. "When you can't see it, you can't stop the puck."
Onalaska almost added another score midway through the period just as a Panthers penalty was expiring, but Grosskopf made two nice saves to keep the score at 1-0.
As time was winding down in the period, Blank nearly notched his second tally, but his shot bounced off Grosskopf's shoulder and hit the crossbar before it was cleared by a West Salem defenseman.
When it appeared the period would end in a 1-1 deadlock, an icing was whistled as the horn sounded, but after a little prompting from the West Salem bench, 1.1 seconds was put back on the clock.
The Panthers took a faceoff to the right of Ona goalie Joe Witz and after winning the draw, fired a shot on goal that trickled between the pads of the goalie for an apparent score. The officials held a brief conversation with the goal judge and decided the goal was scored after the horn sounded. The score stayed at 1-1 and shots were 10 apiece as the teams retired to their respective locker rooms.
The second period started much the same as the prior stanza--a West Salem penalty--but this time the Panthers took advantage and almost grabbed the lead.
West Salem forward Zach Pierce found himself with the puck and flew down the left side and ripped a shot from the left dot that collided with the right pad of Ona's Witz before ending harmlessly in the corner.
Less than a minute later, Ona took advantage of a power play for their second score. As the WS penalty was expiring, a skater left the player bench a fraction of a second before the penalized player left the sin bin and a 'too many men' infraction was whistled.
Twenty seconds into the penalty, Tyler Ebner sent a shot from the left dot that snicked off the high glove of Grosskopf for a power play goal at 4:39, with an assist to Blank.
West Salem had two power play chances in the middle of the period but was unable to capitalize.
With just over two minutes left in the period, Ona went in on a 2-on-1 break, with Ian Earp making a pass from the left side to Austin Lubinsky, who was motoring down the slot. His quick shot beat the WS goalie and made the score 3-1 at 14:51. Blank earned his second assist (and third point) of the contest.
The period ended just after Witz got run over by Taylor Trapp, resulting in a cross-checking call. Shots were 13-7 in favor of Ona in the period.
The final period saw lots of neutral zone action but few scoring chances until Lubinsky ripped a shot from the low left circle that clanged off the post and behind the net with just over six minutes left.
West Salem took a timeout with 3:57 remaining, and despite a power play opportunity and an extra skater for over a minute late as Grosskopf came off, was unable to score as the horn sounded on a 3-1 Hilltopper victory. West Salem held the shot edge at 8-6 in the seemingly conservative third period.
Witz finished with 24 saves for Onalaska, who improved to 21-3-1. On the other end, Grosskopf stopped 26 pucks for West Salem, who ended the campaign with a solid 18-8-1 mark.
"Joe has improved throughout the year," said Onalaska coach Tim Ebner said of his netminder Witz. "We've done a nice job in front of him, but today he came up with big saves down the stretch and that was huge."
The Hilltoppers move on to 'Q Thursday,' as they will face KMMO, who upset favored Waukesha in the Sectional 8 final game.