Verona topples hockey Cardinals

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Adam Hatlan/For the Times-Tribune
Zach Heidel and Middleton’s hockey team fell to Verona last Friday./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Middleton and Verona have dominated the Big Eight hockey landscape the past seven years. The Cardinals have won four conference titles in that time and the Wildcats have notched three.

If their first match-up is any indication of how the battle for the top will be this season, hockey fans are in for a real treat.

Verona got the best of Middleton last Friday night, surviving a late rally by the Cardinals to win 4-3 in overtime at the Verona Ice Center.

Middleton provided theatrics in the third period, scoring two goals in the final eight minutes, including the game-tying goal by forward Connor Julius with 2:45 remaining in the game.

It wasn’t enough for the Cardinals, as Verona capped off the win in dramatic fashion, scoring the winning goal just 21 seconds into the bonus period.

“This is a great learning experience,” Middleton head coach Steffon Walby said after the loss. “Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. I know they (Middleton players) certainly know the feeling of what it’s like to be on the losing end. That always seems to motivate people to become better.”

Middleton edged Verona for the Big Eight Conference title last year, then knocked off the Wildcats in a WIAA sectional semifinal. Verona came out early in Friday’s match-up looking like last year’s loss was still fresh in their minds.

“I think right from the get go Verona was hungrier,” Walby said of the sluggish start. “I think losing last year to us … I saw the hunger in their eyes and not in our eyes. Hats off to them. They (Verona) were definitely hungrier than we were.”

Verona got started right away, winning the opening face-off and taking the puck into their zone. Verona’s Mason McCormick, assisted by Mack Keryluk and Brockton Baker, scored the game’s first goal just 25 seconds into the game for an early 1-0 advantage.

A little more than five minutes later, Verona’s Jeff Bishop, assisted by McCormick, blasted the one-timer from near the blue line and punched one in past the glove of Middleton goalie David Vodenlich (32 saves) to give Verona a 2-0 lead that put Middleton in an early hole.

The Wildcats came out flying around the ice, limiting Middleton’s chances and living in the offensive zone much of the period. Verona had 12 shots on goal to Middleton’s five in the first period. Verona had 36 shots on goal to Middleton’s 26 for the game.

“We just didn’t have guys that buried (the puck) tonight,” Walby said of not capitalizing on chances.

Walby was happy with his goalie after the two early Verona goals.

“I thought our goalie David (Vodenlich), after the first two goals went in, I thought he stopped some breakaways, stopped some shots,” Walby said. “I thought he was absolutely fabulous on the back end.”

The second period was a different story for Middleton, as it came out looking re-energized.

Middleton scored a goal 51 seconds into the period, as Hunter Kowalski took a pass from Connor Julius and snuck one past Verona goalie Garhett Kaegi (18 saves) to cut the lead to 2-1.

“[We] were lucky to be down 2-0,” Walby said.  “[The team] came out, we got a goal. It wasn’t a strong goal, but nonetheless it went in for us. Then all of the sudden we started to do the game plan. Before you know it we had (Verona) back on their heels.”

The first Middleton penalty of the night gave Verona a one-skater advantage and the Wildcats capitalized. Jacob Keyes scored for Verona after Jack Anderson’s shot rebounded off of Vodenlich, and Keyes swooped in behind the Middleton defense for the easy punch-in goal, giving Verona a 3-1 advantage.

“[Verona] got a [power-play] goal, but I think that was more about being in the right spot at the right time,” Walby said. “For the rest of the game, we were playing catch-up.”

Middleton was able to catch-up, which set up the third period drama.

Middleton’s Ross Johnson scored 9:28 into the period on a breakaway after a Verona turnover, being assisted by Zach Heidel, cutting the deficit to 3-2.

Then with 2:45 remaining in the game, Connor Julius took a slick pass in front of goal from Justin Engelkes and scored the game-tying goal, going top-shelf against Verona’s Kaegi.

Middleton won the opening face-off in overtime, but Verona’s Jack Keryluk promptly stole the puck and went streaking unassisted for the game-winner, splitting the defense and firing the puck just past the glove of Vodenlich.

Face-offs were a problem for the Cardinals during the game, as they lost that battle 20-16.

“When you design plays to be ran off the face-off, and you don’t get control of it, then you’re behind the eight ball right from the get go,” Walby said.

Verona has faced some tough non-conference opponents to start the season as indicated by their overall 3-4 record, but they now possess a spotless 3-0 conference record. Middleton, two-time defending champ in the Big Eight, fell to 3-2, 2-1.

“The Big Eight is so incredibly strong,” Walby said. “Anybody is going to win out of it. It’s the people that know the tradition, know the history. That’s what it normally comes down to.”

Walby sees positives out of his squad from Friday’s game as they move forward on the season.

“I know my team is on the way of being shaped,” he said. “We cut it down to running seven or eight guys over the final 10 minutes. And our leaders decided to lead. I think those are some positives.”

And they still have one more shot at Verona later this season.

“There’s a lot of kids that haven’t been part of a pure rivalry like this,” Walby said. “What we have to do is we got to come out of the gates in a big game. The next game in our building is going to be huge against them.”

• Middleton 4, Madison Memorial 0 — The Cardinals also toppled the Spartans last Tuesday.

Hunter Kowalski, Preston Lewis, Julius and Engelkes all had goals for Middleton. Vodenlich had 20 saves and posted the shutout.

• On deck: Middleton hosts Janesville Thursday at 8 p.m., then hosts Madison West Saturday at 8 p.m. The Cardinals then travel to Beloit Memorial Dec. 20 at 7 p.m.


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