By Dan Hardenbrook

The incredible second season of varsity hockey for the Manistique Emeralds came to a sad, sudden end in the MHSAA regional semifinals at Sault Ste. Marie Friday night. The Emeralds, who advanced to the second game of the playoffs for the first time after beating Negaunee in a pre-regional qualifying game, came up just short in an intense battle with the Blue Devils. They fell 2-1, seeing their season wrap up with an overall record of 18-7-1.

After knocking off Negaunee 6-1 at home on Wednesday, the Emeralds entered the regional semifinal with two goals in mind: knock off the one team they hadn’t match up with yet, and reach the regional championship for another shot at their rivals from Escanaba. The atmosphere was electric inside Big Bear Arena, as a capacity crowd packed the rink to cheer on the two teams. Fans started lining up almost two hours before puck drop to see the highly anticipated first-time matchup that featured many old friends and rivals from the youth hockey days. But when the puck dropped, things became anything but friendly.

The Blue Devils came out aggressive. They smothered the Emerald zone, putting tons of pressure on the puck, hoping to overwhelm the Emeralds.

Manistique weathered the initial storm, standing their ground. Avery Wilson put the Blue Devils on top with a first period score, and even then, the Emeralds wouldn’t lay down. They battled back and found their own rhythm. They got their first big break just a few minutes later, when Stephen Allen scored on a powerplay to tie the contest at 1-1.

Neither team gained an edge in the second period as the goaltenders took center stage. Manistique’s Alex Noble and the Soo’s Tristan Forgrave gave the fans an incredible display between the pipes. Both made several spectacular saves and fought off attempts from all angles, continually one-upping each other.

Blue Devils would finally break through early in the third to take a 2-1 lead.

Manistique pushed for another goal and came inches away on multiple occasions. Two shots hit goal posts; another struck the bottom off the crossbar. Forgrave, in the ultimate game saving move, reached back across his body and behind him to smother a puck that had gotten through his legs.

Even with an extra attacker in the final minute, after the Emeralds pulled their goalie, they had a rebound get tipped just wide.

When the horn sounded, players stood in shock, feeling empty as the season came to end.

While the sting of the loss will stick with them all offseason, the Emeralds have plenty to be proud of. By the end of the night, Noble had made more than 40 saves, keeping the Emeralds in the contest. Many Emeralds players set records for the young program this year, and the team had tremendous success despite still being doubted by many.

One thing is certain: the Emeralds belong in high school hockey, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.