Story by Jim Horvath
Photos and video by Larry Bennet
In an up-and-down season, the North Olmsted hockey team found itself on a bit of an upswing heading into the 2013 Southwestern Conference Tournament.
That positive trend continued Saturday as the Eagles opened SWC play against Westlake. After a hard-fought 6-3 win over the Demons, the Eagles split their next two games and advanced to the SWC championship game Monday afternoon at the North Olmsted Recreation Complex. North Olmsted will take on defending champion Amherst at 3 p.m.
Westlake, despite wins over Avon Lake and Brecksville in its next two contests, found itself on the outside looking in after making the title game a year ago. The goals-allowed tiebreaker eliminated the Demons from this year’s tournament.
North Olmsted, which won the SWC tourney back in 2011, lost to Amherst 7-1 Saturday night, but bounced back for a 9-1 win over Olmsted Falls Sunday morning. Westlake defeated Avon Lake 10-7 in Sunday’s first game, giving the Demons a total of 13 goals allowed heading into their final game.
Westlake, now 13-9-1 overall, closed out the tournament with a 3-2 win over Brecksville.
It all started with a heated battle Saturday afternoon. North Olmsted had won two of its last three games, but more than likely remembered a 3-2 loss to the Demons back in mid-December. The Eagles came out with a three-goal barrage in the first period to take control after the first 15 minutes of play.
Freshman Michael Ceepo got things started when he took a pass from Henly in between the circles and flipped it past Guay at the 6:59 mark. An unassisted power play goal by sophomore forward Shawn Elliott off a faceoff gave the Eagles a 2-0 lead with 6:06 left int he period.
Then with 1:06 remaining, Elliott found the back of the net off an assist from junior Evan Solomon for another power play goal. With a 3-0 lead, things were looking good for the Eagles.
The Demons, however, quickly showed they weren’t going away any time soon.
With just 1:33 gone in the second period, Westlake struck back as junior Kent Axcell scored off an assist from Connor Fife. Just over a minute later, freshman Adam Fife hit a slap shot falling away between the circles for another Demon goal to cut the North Olmsted lead to one.
Then at 10:51, Axcell scored again, this time off a pass from fellow junior Rudy Keppler. Within a span of just over threre minutes, Westlake had made it a new game at 3-3.
“We really didn’t do anything different,” said Westlake head coach John Duke after the game. “We played a great first period, we just didn’t put the puck behind them. They took advantage of their opportunities and we were down 3-0.
“We just told the guys to keep going and that they would get right back into the game if they kept playing that way. We came out on fire and converted some of those opportunities to get back in it,” he added.
“We start slow a lot of times,” said Eagles head coach Tim Murphy, whose team got above the .500 mark at 10-9 with the two tournament wins. “It’s been something that’s happened to us all year. We come out of the locker room slow. Sometimes we survive, and sometimes we don’t.”
This time, the Eagles survived.
By the time the second period ended, the Eagles still went into the locker room with a lead. With 8:53 left in the period, senior forward Alex Arendec slapped in a rebound shot to give the lead back to North Olmsted. Westlake kept the pressure on, but junior goalie Chase Cullinan was up to the task.
With Cullinan and the Eagle defense holding down the fort, North Olmsted got some breathing room with 3:03 left. That’s when Henley scored on a breakaway on the left side, with the assists going to Ceepo and freshman Nathan Schmitt.
“I think that next goal was a big one,” Duke admitted. “I think if we score the next one, it could have been a different game. We still fought the rest of the game, but I think you could sense they North Olmsted got a little more confidence going.”
The intensity continued to grow in the third quarter. Cullinan stopped a point-blank shot in the third minute of play, while Guay and the Demon defenders turned away three straight Eagle breakaways in a two-minute span.
Duke called timeout with 5:59 left in the game. With the North Olmsted defense still holding, Guay was pulled with 1:41 remaining to add an extra attacker. With Guay back in goal, North Olmsted senior Michael Shackleton scored off a faceoff with :04 left to ice the Eagle win.
“We played a good hockey game. The puck just didn’t bounce our way,” Duke said. “Overall I think we had the balance of play, but they converted and we didn’t. That’s what happens sometimes.
“But I think we’ve been more consistent this year than we were our first two years. We’re competing at a pretty high level. We beat Kent, and we’ve had a couple other big wins this season. We’ve had some good wins, and some tough losses, but overall we’re playing well,” he added.
“They jumped us there in the second period and scored a couple of nice goals,” Murphy said. “We were on our heels a little bit there, but we bounced back.
“We scored a couple of power play goals, and I though we probably should of had a few more. But one thing you don’t want to do is give up too many goals, because that’s the first tiebreaker.
“Defensively, I thought Chase did a nice job today. He’s been pretty consistent for us all season. He did a nice job early when they came at us in the first period, and he made a lot of big saves for us down the stretch,” he added.