By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
PLYMOUTH — Livonia is one of the great hockey communities in Michigan, but had never been home to an MHSAA Finals champion.
Livonia Stevenson brought a championship to the birthplace of former NHL star Mike Modano, beating Hartland 5-4 in the Division 2 title game Saturday at Compuware Arena.
Prior to this weekend, Livonia's three hockey-playing schools had combined for only eight regional championships during the 39-year history of the MHSAA tournament and just one semifinal appearance (Stevenson in 1987). It doesn't help that the Livonia schools often encounter some of the state's perennial powerhouses early in the postseason. Stevenson has been eliminated 10 times by Detroit Catholic Central and five times by Trenton in regional play.
"I couldn't be happier for the Stevenson administration, the alumni and the whole Livonia community," fifth-year Stevenson coach David Mitchell said. "We're in the 43rd year of high school hockey in Livonia.
We're the 43rd team in Stevenson history. This is the first chance a Livonia school has had to play in a state final. To get it done, this is not just for Stevenson, but for all of Livonia high school hockey. We've had some great teams and some great kids go through our program. To do it is very special. Hopefully, the whole community can enjoy this."
To win its first championship, Stevenson denied Hartland the same opportunity. The Eagles had won 11 regional titles before this season, reaching the semifinals only twice until playing in their first final on Saturday.
Hartland coach Rick Gadwa praised captains Nick Pleshakov, Justin Bailey and Ned O'Boyle for laying the foundation for Hartland's first march to the championship game.
"These three guys changed Hartland hockey," Gadwa said. "It was their leadership on and off the ice. We put Hartland on the map. That's something that hopefully stays."
Junior Dominic Lutz was the star in Stevenson's historic season, scoring 42 goals with 32 assists in 31 games to easily lead the Spartans in scoring. It was fitting that the 6-foot, 185-pound forward scored the team's biggest goals in the championship game, popping in two in a 2:37 span of the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 advantage. Stevenson never surrendered the lead.
"We've been preaching Team 43," Lutz said. "It's just great to see it all come together in the end. We've got it. It's unbelievable. We're like a family. This is the closest team I've ever played on."
Stevenson senior Travis Harvey, who scored two goals and had two assists in the semifinal on Friday, opened the scoring off a faceoff win at 4:55 of the first period. Hartland junior Austin Flores tied it off a
feed from Chris McRae at 6:26 of the first.
Despite being outplayed in the first period, Hartland found itself on top by a 2-1 count when McRae scored just 54 seconds into the second period.
The pace picked up considerably after that, as the teams combined for five goals during an 8:18 span. Stevenson took the lead for good on two goals by Lutz at 4:30 and 7:07 and Harvey's second goal of the game at
O'Boyle brought Hartland within 4-3 at the 9:56 mark, only to have Stevenson regain a two-goal advantage at 12:48 on a goal by Ray Chartier.
"We would rather not play that way," Mitchell said. "We'd rather play a little more defensive and shut things down. These guys, when they see opportunities, they tend to go. We saw a few opportunities and
took some. Give Hartland credit. We were starting to look for goals and they caught us and they turned around and buried some of their own. They played an outstanding game."
"It was just go, go, go," O'Boyle said. "It was incredible emotionally."
Hartland didn't take long to trim the lead once the puck dropped in the third period, making it a 5-4 game on a goal by McRae at the 14-second mark.
The Eagles had eight more shots on net the rest of the game, but couldn't get another puck past Stevenson goalie Connor Humitz. Hartland called timeout with 2:21 left and pulled goalie Nick Wineka in the final minute, but couldn't generate a shot in that time against an aggressive Stevenson forecheck.
"We just want to keep it deep in their zone as much as we can," Lutz said. "Just gain the red line, get it deep and forecheck. We didn't want anything in our zone. We wanted everything down there, just keep
all the pressure off Connor. It seemed like it worked out."
Stevenson finished with a 23-7-1 record, while Hartland ended 19-9-2.
Click for the full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Livonia Stevenson players celebrate a goal during Saturday's Division 2 Final in front of their fan section at Compuware Arena. (Middle) Hartland goaltender Nick Wineka makes one of his 35 saves Saturday. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)