A few days prior to Christmas, with the promise of a winter wonderland covered with that white stuff, kids returned home from college and many old acquaintances were renewed off the ice.
On the rink at KB Willett Arena, another meeting was taking place. For the 51st time, two Wisconsin Valley Conference foes—Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point—would battle it out for hockey supremacy just six days before presents would be opened all over America.
This would be an early Christmas gift, if you will.
On this chilly evening, the hosts would prove to be the dominant squad as they scored two early first period goals (three total) en route to a 6-1 victory over rival Wisconsin Rapids.
In a portent of things to come, the volunteer who put the net out on the Rapids end slipped and went head-over-teakettle, foreshadowing the struggles that the Rapids squad would have in the early going.
The Panthers would score a pair of goals in a span of just under six minutes in the middle of the period to put the pressure on the visiting team.
Less than a minute after Rapids goalie Tanner Reany denied Jake Minch with a right pad save, Devon Blaes scored an unassisted goal for the hosts to make it 1-0 with just over 12 minutes remaining in the opening stanza.
Blaes tallied his second counter five minutes later when he caught a pass from Carter Smigaj while crossing the low slot right to left and slipped the puck past the Rapids netminder to make it 2-0.
The guests cut the lead in half when they caught the hosts napping on a line change seconds later.
Spencer Sparks snuck off the bench and got behind the defense and found himself all alone with the puck. After a couple of dekes, the junior forward pitchforked a backhander past SPASH goalie Spencer Wierzba to make it 2-1 with 5:39 left. Isaac Gilbert and Colin Brey earned helpers on the play.
Two minutes later, Smigaj would almost add to his point total, but a rebound attempt went wide left.
Dayne Hoyord did not fail with just over one minute left, scoring on a backdoor play on a nice pass from the right circle to the low left side to make it 3-1, SPASH. Cole Beilke and Austin Conley were given assists on the play, and that is how the period ended.
Reany had 11 saves for Rapids, while Wierzba stopped seven pucks for the hosts.
SPASH almost added to its lead in the middle of the second period, but a shot from the left wing went across the crease behind Reany, only to end up the the right corner.
Rapids had a good opportunity with about five minutes left, but Wierzba stood tall, making three saves on point-blank shots to keep the score at 3-1.
Then a young player got a joyous gift, scoring his first varsity goal with just over three minutes left.
Sophomore Will Mason gathered in a pass just in the offensive zone, steamed down the middle, and sent a hard shot on the ice that was able to beat the Rapids goalie through the five for his first marker as a SPASH Panther. Leo Knapp and Nick Norrgran earned helpers on the play to make it 4-1.
Shots were nearly even in the period, with Wierzba stopping six and Reany saving five.
Norrgran scored just under two minutes into the final period, with a helper to Knapp, to make it 5-1, SPASH.
After the only three penalties of the contest (SPASH-2, Rapids-1) occurred without goals resulting, Smigaj knocked in a score with 1:21 left for the final tally.
With 15 seconds left, there was a collision in the goal mouth on the Rapids end with Reany going hard to the ice. On video replay, it appeared that a Panther inadvertently kneed the goalie in the head.
After a few moments, Reany skated off the ice to the locker room. Alex Rawding would finish the game without a shot on goal.
Reany stopped 14 pucks in the period for a game total of 30, while Wierzba repelled nine for a total of 22 in the win.
SPASH improves to 6-2 (2-1 WVC), while Rapids falls to 4-3 (1-1 WVC).