Wolves hockey team back in state after thrilling overtime win
Lightning doesn’t strike twice, but Sutton McDonald does.
For the second year in a row, the Eagle River hockey captain scored in sudden-death overtime to put his team into the state playoffs with a heart-stopping win.
“Best. Feeling. Ever,” said McDonald, who beat Service goalie Kevin Taunton on a breakaway with 2:50 to go in the second overtime of the Wolves' 2-1 win in the first round of the Cook Inlet Conference playoffs at the McDonald Center in Eagle River.
The fairytale finish was made all the more sweeter by the two players who assisted the junior on the play – McDonald’s younger brother, sophomore Cam, and freshman goalie Ryan Gray. The McDonald brothers are the grandsons of the building’s namesake, Harry J. McDonald, and Gray was a force to be reckoned with 42 saves in the biggest game of his high school career.
“It’s perfect,” said Cam McDonald. “I was telling (Sutton) early on, just keep shooting the puck and I’ll give it to you.”
Gray started the game-winning play by knocking the puck to Cam McDonald, who passed it to his brother streaking up the ice. “Sutty” did the rest, racing past the final defenseman and flicking a backhand over Taunton’s stick to send the Eagle River crowd howling.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Gray, who finished with 13 saves in the two overtime periods.
McDonald’s winner came just moments after the pro-Eagle River crowd (which included more than a few Chugiak fans and players rooting on their crosstown rivals) erupted into a “Ryan Gray! Ryan Gray!” chant after the freshman turned back several point-blank shots.
“He was on his head the whole entire game,” Sutton McDonald said.
The thrilling end was fitting for a game that was played at a fever pace and included a little bit of everything, including a disallowed goal for the Cougars in the first period and a penalty shot save by Taunton on Sutton McDonald in the second.
Both goalies put on a show throughout, with Taunton finishing with 37 saves.
The Wolves took a 1-0 lead just before the end of the second period on a wicked slap shot from the blue line by Logan Rachow off a Cam McDonald feed.
The fourth-seeded Cougars didn’t quit, and finally broke through Gray early in the third when Tyler Millar went low on the freshman to draw level with 11:57 left in game.
Although Eagle River’s top players got the glory, all of the team’s lines contributed — much to the delight of the coaching staff. After one particularly gritty shift in the first period, the head coach and assistants were handing out back slaps like Fourth of July parade candy.
“Everybody that got out there knew they had a job to do and they got it done,” said Wolves coach Bill Comer, who has now led the team to its only state playoff appearances in school history.
Comer praised the play of the Cougars in the back-and-forth affair, which saw just three penalties.
“I take my hat off to them,” he said. “It was just a good game to be a part of.”
The game was almost a carbon copy of last year’s first-round victory, a 2-1 triple overtime victory over South in which Sutton McDonald also scored on his backhand.
The No. 5 seed Wolves will face the top-seeded Wolverines (who defeated Bartlett 17-2 on Monday in Anchorage) in the CIC semifinals on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Ben Boeke Ice Arena, and the team was brimming with confidence after extending its postseason through state, which will be Feb. 9-11 in Wasilla.
“I think we can go all the way for sure,” said Cam McDonald. “We’ve just gotta keep working hard and pushing on.”
As he spoke, classic rock blared from a set of speakers inside the victorious locker room, and McDonald said the scene inside after the win was indescribable.
“You’re just hugging everybody and screaming as loud as you can,” he said.
Comer said advancing to the second round of the CIC playoffs and earning an automatic state tournament bid was the team’s goal, but he was more proud of the fact the team got to see its months of work pay off.
“For me it was about having something good happen to these boys to have them believe there’s good things in the world and good things in life if you work hard,” he said.