RIVER HILLS — There was little question Verona had the skill and talent to earn a third straight trip to the WIAA state boys hockey final.
But to get past University School of Milwaukee, the top-ranked team in the state, the Wildcats knew they’d need more than just skill and talent. They’d need the intangibles such as speed, execution, awareness ... the little things that make a difference when a season hangs in the balance.
And did they deliver, riding a three-goal opening period to a 5-1 victory Thursday night at Uihlein Ice Arena on the University School campus.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s tournament was shifted to alternate sites. So instead of playing in front of what was likely to be a sizable contingent of hometown fans at the Alliant Energy Center, the Wildcats instead had to face University School on its home ice.
“We haven’t seen them this year and they haven’t seen us, so we knew we needed to set the tone,” Verona coach Joel Marshall said. “I don’t know what it was, but the guys really had some energy to start the game.”
Leo Renlund started the first-period outburst, scoring 10 minutes, 5 seconds into the game. A penalty on University School’s Garrett Cox at 13:30 put Verona on the power play for second time in the period, and Easton Simpson capitalized by taking a pass from Walker Haessig and doubling the Wildcats’ lead at 13:57.
Haessig struck again in the closing seconds of the period, scoring with 3.7 seconds left to make it 3-0.
“That was one of the best periods we’ve played all year,” Haessig said. “I don’t think they were ready for what we were bringing.”
Neither did Marshall.
“We’ve struggled to score early this whole year,” Marshall said. “It was unique for us to get that first one.”
Instead of playing catch-up, Verona spent the remainder of the game keeping University School from doing the same. Maintaining the energy level of the first period proved challenging, thanks to eight penalties (four per side).
University School had nothing to show for two power-play opportunities when Jack Marske was called for tripping at the nine-minute mark. The Wildcats were seconds away from killing that penalty when Peter Ellis scored University School’s first goal of the night.
But Verona restored the three-goal cushion minutes later on a score by Anthony Heinrichs, and Max Codde added an insurance goal when he found the back of the net with 27 seconds to play in the third.
“They’re an unbelievable hockey team,” Marshall said of University School. “We came in and our forwards felt like they could be better than their defensemen, and our defense and our goaltending felt like they were better than their forwards. Those were our two challenges, but obviously, they stepped up in the first period then we held on and lived through some minimal scoring chances.”
Verona turns its attention to the ultimate goal: Winning the state title for a second straight season. Standing in the way is Hudson, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, which advanced to the final with a 6-2 victory over Notre Dame Thursday night.
“One more (game),” Marshall said. “We’re going to have our hands full. Hudson is a good team, they’re arguably one of the best around in terms of consistency and depth. It should make a good matchup Saturday afternoon.”