Four down one to go. We’ve made it to the last go-around here in the 2023-24 season and much like last season it’s Carroll that occupies the top spot with Leo trailing behind but safely in second place. With a win over the Lions in Week 12 the Vipers have essentially locked up third place so as far as the regular season standings go for all intents and purposes… we’re done here. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun along the way before things get serious and we’ll discuss some ways we can do that down below.
1.) Carroll Chargers (12-0-0, 24 pts.)
Like I said above it’s Carroll on top of the standings still and there’s not been anything to hint at the fact that they aren’t. The only real issues they had on the winning side of things was the fact that they trailed the Vipers through the first period back in Week 10 but that was a game that they dominated on the possession front. After being unable to score in the first Carroll answered with a 26-4 shots on goal margin in the 2nd period and took the lead of the game with two power play goals courtesy of Dylan Braun and Davis Cline. The Vipers gave it a run in the third but another goal from Braun extended the lead to two with 9:30 to play as Carroll picked up two more points but for the Vipers there were good times on the horizon, more on that later. Carroll’s typical ‘Premier’ game of the rotation was up next as they took on Leo but as has been the case before this game was far from premier. In fact, I’d say it was essentially over five minutes in. Leo put Eian Demorest in net to start but given how he performed in mop up duty against the Chargers in the disaster game in Week Five there was at least some optimism that he could at least give his guys a chance to win. Then the game started and the first five minutes went about as well as it could have for the Chargers. Michael Baldwin let a shot go from the left point as Demorest slid to his left the shot redirected off the Leo winger and in to a wide open right side of the net. Then about a minute later the Lions took a penalty to go on the penalty kill and a minute after that Austin Amick took a cross-checking penalty in front of the net giving the Chargers a two-man advantage. As you would expect, the Chargers capitalized with not one but two goals from Braun and just to twist the knife a little bit they came 0:22 apart. From there the Lions brought in Drew Baumert and he was able to steady the ship but the blazing hot start to the game essentially sealed it up early for Carroll. Given everything we’ve seen from Carroll, even with 40 minutes still to go it just seemed like there was no coming back from that.
While they surrendered a goal late in the second period the Chargers responded with two of their own from Carter Gnau and Colsen White to grow the lead to four goals just to remind everyone who they are. Tyson Finefrock got one back a short time later for Leo to get to the 5-2 final score. With the win Carroll clinched their second straight Roy Chin Cup as regular season champions, the main question left for the Chargers these next couple weeks is if that’s the only regular season accomplishment from last year they’ll repeat. The other big question to still be answered is who is going to win the league scoring title. Entering Week 12 Gnau and Braun were tied at 19 apiece and the game against Homestead provided an opportunity to add some more points and separate from each other but also the chasing pack that they already led by three points. While they didn’t separate from each other, they certainly did from the pack. Four points games for each of them extended their lead in the scoring race to seven points but were still tied with each other, now at 23 points. Carroll was dominant over the Spartans from start to finish. While they didn’t score nearly as many goals as they should have, which can be said about them a lot this season, the game was never in doubt even as Homestead held them off the board until 2:53 remained in the first period. It was there that Gnau opened the scoring with a power play goal that capped off a period Carroll outshot Homestead 11-1. Braun then made it 2-0 early in the 2nd period before Finn Cupp broke his goal drought before the intermission with a power play goal and a griddy to celebrate. The third period was more of the same as Carroll added two more goals, both coming from Braun to complete his hat trick. To illustrate how this game went, shots on goal for the game were 37-5 which has to be a record margin for the last few years of high school hockey. After being a little wobbly in December, Carroll roared back with a stellar January that positions them well to avenge last year’s postseason losses.
2.) Leo Lions (7-4-1, 15 pts.)
For the first time this season there was actually some semblance of debate for this spot. While Leo has been steady at #2 all year, the loss to the Vipers in Week 12 at least raises the questions. The answer here is that Leo is still second-best but another loss to the Vipers could change that answer. Leo had a bit of a rough go-around this time. They never led against Homestead until the last minute of the game and spent most of the third period trailing before the tying goal from Tyson Finefrock with 2:30 to go. To me that would be the more concerning result than either of their losses this rotation. Leo has dominated that matchup in the past but they had to scratch and claw for this one. When looking back at it this game, the key that stands out was a goal from Colten Calhoun with 0:11 left in the second period that tied the game. That gave Leo all the momentum heading to the dressing room but they followed it up by conceding a goal to the Spartans in the first five minutes of the third. However they immediately answered back with a penalty shot from Colin Robison. But it didn’t take long for the Spartans to strike back and retake the lead just 1:12 later. Eventually Finefrock was able to tie the game leading to the eventual winner from Alex Hendricks after Alex Dougherty couldn’t recover in time in the Homestead net. The following week was a little bit of deja vu for the Lions against Carroll. The start of the game went about as badly as it possibly could have. A redirected own-goal that turned into a 5-on-3 and two power play goals for Carroll had Leo down 3-0 before the game had gotten out of its infancy. Try as they might, it was again a case of getting too far behind to come back just as was the case in Week Five. A late 2nd period goal from Hendricks offered up a little bit of hope only for Carroll to score twice in the early stages of the third to make it a 5-1 game, further sealing Leo’s fate.
Week 11 provided the surprise result of the season thus far as Leo blew a two goal lead with less than five minutes to play and dropped to the Vipers in a shootout. The game was a goaltending battle through and through as both Drew Baumert and Brody Rosswurm had to make some great saves over the course of 50 minutes and an eight round shootout. Sam Schwartz scored both goals for Leo in the game with the first one being a strange goal after the puck took an odd bounce off the glass. The play caught Rosswurm off guard allowing an tap-in goal for Schwartz with 1:41 to play in the first period. After a scoreless second Schwartz was the beneficiary of another tap-in goal just as time expired on Leo’s power play. Now with a 2-0 lead and 9:16 to play, Leo was in a good spot to close out the game with a hot goaltender backing them up. It wasn’t meant to be though as the Vipers scored two goals in 45 seconds to tie the game at 11:57 of regulation. After overtime couldn’t provide a winner the game went to a shootout where he would come out on top was anyone’s guess. Both team had goalies playing well and some high quality shooters. None of the star players were able to score on either side after repeatedly firing wrist shots that the goalies turned aside with ease. It wasn’t until the eighth round that the Vipers were able to score and after Leo couldn’t answer back the Lions had to settle for just a point. By losing that game Leo is still technically able to drop to third place in the standings but their magic number to lock up second place is now just one point.
3.) Fort Wayne Vipers (4-7-1, 9 pts.)
The Vipers continue making strides and look like they’ll be a difficult out in both the city and state tournaments as the regular season enters its final weeks. While they left no margin for error in their back-to-back wins in overtime/shootout, the way they accomplished both those wins were opposites of each other. In their Week 11 matchup the Vipers led 2-0 at the halfway point thanks to goals from Jackson Bertels and Evan Brenner. They looked lined up to make it 3-0 with a power play goal but instead Daniel Martinsky scored a short-handed goal for Homestead to halve the deficit. The Vipers conceded again not long after that as Andrew Litwinko tied the game at 2 with 1:33 left in the second period. In the third the Vipers had to weather the Homestead storm as the Spartans peppered Brody Rosswurm for 12 shots on goal, seven more than the Vipers could muster. Weather the storm they did though and the game went to overtime. The decider came off the stick of Nick Vanryn after a great clear from Grant Knudson got the puck into some open ice in the neutral zone. Vanryn was easily able to put the puck past the Homestead keeper to seal the win.
In Week 12 the story was flipped and it was the Vipers who had to make the comeback. Leo opened the scoring with a goal late in the first period and through 30 minutes of mostly-even hockey that was the lone goal. The Vipers led the shots on goal battle 22-20 at that stage of the game fand furthered that to 36-23 after a big third period in which they outshot Leo 14-3. Regardless it was the big numbers on the scoreboard that would matter most and when Sam Schwartz scored his second of the game with 9:16 to play it looked like the Vipers might be headed for another loss. Then Jackson Bertels was able to open the floodgates with an opportunistic poke check past the Leo defense off a faceoff at center ice. Bertels fired a shot past the block of Drew Baumert, then 45 seconds later Michael Scully fired the tying goal from the point through loads of traffic and past Baumert. The five minutes of overtime that followed didn’t produce a winner and for the second time this season the Vipers went to a shootout. This one took eight rounds to solve and it was Brenner who provided the only goal of the 16 players that had a shot after a mighty goaltending battle on both sides of the ice. The lone blemish this rotation for the Vipers came at the beginning of it with a 3-1 loss to Carroll in Week 10. Even with that said, the Vipers led that game after the first period after Vanryn ripped a shot from the high slot. The second period did not go the Vipers way though as Carroll scored twice on a five-minute major penalty to Scully. Already without Logan Ormsby and Simon Watson, the loss of Scully on the game misconduct was a significant blow and steeped the hills the Vipers had to climb to knock off the Chargers. The period came to an end with Carroll having out shot the Vipers 26-4 and then a second goal of the game for Dylan Braun made it 3-1 in the third after which the Chargers cruised to the win.
4.) Homestead Spartans (1-9-2, 4 pts.)
Homestead came so close to getting back in the win column a couple of times but fell painfully short each time. They kicked off the New Year with a really good showing against Leo and were in the driver’s seat more often than not. It started off for them with Daniel Martinsky’s power play goal 13:05 into the first period when he got a redirection on a shot from Evan Arnold. In the second period Leo really put the pressure on but Alex Dougherty was able to hang in there until there were just 11 seconds left when the Lions scored a power play goal of their own to tie the game. Andrew Litwinko put the Spartans back in front but Homestead quickly gave the goal back when Henry Loxton covered the puck in the crease, resulting in a penalty shot for Colin Robison that he converted. Not to be outdone though, 1:12 later and the Spartans were back in front after another big goal from Mason Gutmann. The Spartans were able to maintain that one goal lead down to the last 2:30 when Leo yet again evened the score. With the game now tied Leo kept the pressure on the Spartans and were rewarded when Dougherty had trouble with a floater from Alex Hendricks, lost track of it, and then Hendricks put a backhander in to a wide open net. With just 54 seconds to work with the Spartans couldn’t find an equalizer of their own and went on to lose the game, a game in which they only trailed for those last 54 seconds.
Week 11 provided a similar result as Homestead again fell just short of a win but at least got the consolation of a point in the standings for an overtime loss. Through the first half of the game the Vipers had opened up a two goal lead but as was the case the week prior, Martinsky got Homestead on the board with a special teams goal. While the Spartans were shorthanded Cam Hurley sent the puck up the ice to the neutral zone where Martinsky was waiting. He was able to get a step on the Vipers defensemen and put a shot past Brody Rosswurm on the breakaway. Litwinko followed that up with a goal in the dying minutes of the second period to tie the game at two. He forced a Vipers turnover in the neutral zone and fired off a medium-range wrister that bettered Rosswurm, again to the blocker side like Martinsky did. The Spartans pressed hard for the go-ahead goal in the third period, outshooting the Vipers by seven shots, but came up empty handed. However that at least secured them a point in the standings as the game went into overtime. Nick Vanryn would come up with the game-winner for the Vipers when he went down the ice unopposed and caught Connor Gould too far out of his net as he debated whether or not to try and clear the puck away himself. After the two close losses there was much less drama in their Week 12 loss to Carroll. The Spartans dropped the game 5-0 and scoring chances were few and far between with only five shots on goal the entire game. On the bright side, Gould made 32 saves in what could very easily have been a bigger loss than it was. That’s a game that should mostly be written off as Homestead’s focus for the remainder of this season becomes more about how they can peak for the State Tournament in late February.
Game of the Rotation: Leo vs Homestead, Week 10
While we’ve had quite a few good games this rotation I favor this one due to it’s tension throughout the whole 45 minutes. This game was tied on three separate occasions and the third period was quite a roller coaster. From Robison’s penalty shot to Homestead going right back in front and finally Leo’s winning charge in the closing minutes, that period brought all the excitement you could want. Throw on top of that Homestead trying to get their first win since Week Two and I don’t think you could’ve asked for much more given the broader context of the season.
Goal of the Rotation: Brenner Shootout Winner vs Leo
This was an absolutely filthy goal and the fact that it ended up being the game winner makes it even sweeter. While almost everyone else had gone down the left side and taken a wrist shot that Drew Baumert turned aside with ease, in the eighth round Evan Brenner skated out to the right before making a vicious fake deke to the backhand, exposing Baumert to the forehand tuck. Just a disgusting move all-around and from an unlikely source to boot. This one might just end up as goal of the year.
Save of the Rotation: Baumert Desperation Save vs Vipers
Has to be one of, if not the best, saves I’ve seen at this level of hockey. The net was wide open for Logan Ormsby after a beautiful crossing pass from Nick Vanryn but in an act of desperation Baumert just flung himself to the far side of the net, barely getting there in time to prevent the shot from crossing the goal line. We don’t have analytics at this level obviously but if we did the expected goals rate from that shot would’ve been at least 0.95. This save also preserved the 1-0 lead for Leo which ultimately didn’t matter much but it was huge at the time.
Theme to Remember: Comebacks
As we move to the postseason here soon, one thing that has become a recent trend in the league is a comeback. Since returning from the Christmas break we have had two teams come back from 2-0 deficits and another that came back to win after trailing for significant portions of the game. In a league where so often there’s not much suspense, the last few weeks have been a welcome change of pace and added intrigue. Even going back a little further in Week Nine Homestead was down 3-1 and rallied back late to force OT against Carroll. The point of this is to emphasize that just because a team is down by a couple, we can’t count them out this year and the facts back that up. As the games get inherently more interesting late in the season this cloud could loom over some impactful games. So as a warning to everyone, don’t take the foot off the gas until the final buzzer.