PARK RIDGE -- As parents stood carefully on the ice, snapping off photos for posterity, Maine’s hockey team posed for its team photo, with the West Cup trophy in their clutches and a wide grin plastered on the face of every player and coach.
They all held up three fingers.
For the third consecutive season, Maine is the West Cup champion of the IWHSHL.
“It just feels great,” Maine captain and defenseman Peter Koepke said. “We’re on top of the world right now.”
Maine’s 5-2 win over Waubonsie/Metea came in a series-deciding Game 3 on Thursday, and showed coach Greg Mrofcza what his boys were made of, coming on the heels of a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 2.
“They showed a lot of mental fortitude, coming back after losing like that on Tuesday,” Mrofcza said. “There was a chance Waubonsie could have erased all the momentum we had from game one. They might've rolled it into game three, but the team just didn't let them do it.”
The loss stung for Waubonsie but after guiding the Warriors to a state title last season, Waubonsie coach Jeremy Dombro saw a young team in 2023 surpass what he might have reasonably hoped for.
“I just told them I was extremely proud of them,” Dombro said. “If you had told me at the beginning of the season, we were going to lose the league championship to Maine in three games. I would've said ‘then we did a hell of a good job this year’.”
The series first saw Dean Andrews score all four goals in Maine’s 4-1 Game 1 victory, before Waubonsie’s Evan Ziegler buried an overtime goal in Game 2 in a 4-3 win that knotted the series.
Game 3 took place Thursday at Oakton Ice Arena in Park Ridge, on Maine’s home ice. A first period of scoreless hockey suggested that fans jammed into the stands might be wise to buckle in for a nail-biter. But no nail-biter was forthcoming.
Maine struck twice in the second period and twice more early in the third to grab control, en route to its 5-2 win.
“It feels unbelievable,” Maine defenseman Aidan Costigan said. “Everyone’s just coming together at the right time at the end of the season. After Tuesday's loss, we just focused on keeping our heads up and focusing on today, and everyone has been on the same page.”
That Costigan and Koepke are the Maine players quoted in this story didn’t happen by accident.
“Those two guys were just on fire tonight,” Mrofcza said. “The big thing for us was our defense, and the fact that we were able to play puck possession. We weren't giving pucks up, we were maintaining the puck, and we're a tough team to beat when we can do that. This year, we had a group of guys that was able to do it.”
There was also a beast patrolling the blue line all night, and he had ‘Costigan’ stitched onto the back of his jersey.
“Peter Koepke was an all-state defenseman for us this year,” Mrofcza said. “And I know there are a lot of great players out there but in my opinion, Aidan Costigan gets snubbed. He was unbelievable on the blue line tonight. Unbelievable.”
Game 3's scoring didn’t begin until Maine’s Ben Kappel intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and swept in around a defenseman on the right side before firing from mid-circle.
Kappel’s shot at the 13:45 mark found whipped under the bar to give Maine a lead it would never relinquish. Three minutes later, Andrews scored his sixth goal of the series on a rebound set up by a Ryan Belz shot, giving Maine its 2-0 lead.
“It was 0-0 for a long time but we hadn't given up more than one or maybe two quality chances,” Mrofcza said. “The momentum was all ours so for a while there it felt like if they got the first goal, momentum might've shifted their way. Thankfully, we were able to get the first one.”
Koepke liked the way his boys came out on the heels of Tuesday’s overtime loss.
“I think it was just staying hard on the forecheck,” he said. “We did not give their defense a lot of time to move the puck at all and we had a lot of good chances,”
Waubonsie had a power play chance to strike first, early in the second period, but the Warriors had to do it without all-state forward Ziegler, who was injured on an illegal hit in front of the Waubonsie bench.
“I thought our first six or eight minutes of the game were pretty flawless,” Dombro said. “We got pucks out, we got pucks in, it seemed like we picked up right where we left off from Tuesday. We had that power play but that hit took Ziegler out of the game for a little bit, and I thought it definitely impacted our momentum. We had to send a power-play out there without our leading scorer.”
The opening of the third period proved to be a pivotal stretch of play. Maine had 1:39 remaining on power play for a Waubonsie penalty whistled near the end of the second period. Teams with 2-0 leads always want a third insurance goal in order to deflate and demoralize an opponent, and Maine got it.
Koepke fired from the point, straight out from the net, and Costigan was there to bury the rebound at the 16:07 mark of the final period. Five minutes later it was 4-0 when Andrews sent a short back-hand pass from behind the Waubonsie net to Peter Thompson in front. Thompson buried it, making the mountain a bit too high for Waubonsie to climb, especially with Maine goaltender Ryan Besenjak handling every shot and rebound that materialized.
And Maine’s ‘D’ went beyond Koepke and Costigan.
“All six of those guys were really really solid,” Mrofcza said. “Today, our five-six pair played great, (George) Lohens and (Hayden) Weber. They were phenomenal today. Waubonsie couldn't get within 20 or 25 feet and had to just start throwing pucks to the net.”
Ziegler got Waubonsie on the board at 6:35 with a power-play goal, on a feed from Joe Pijanowski. Thompson scored again at 5:43 on Andrews’ second assist of the day. Pijanowski found Ziegler again for Waubonsie’s second goal with 1:47 remaining to end the day’s scoring.
“Both Pijanowski brothers (Joe and Josh) were great in the series,” Dombro said. “And after Andrews scored those four goals in game one, Finn O'Toole shut him down in game two. That was a huge growing process for (O’Toole).”
Maine finished with a 43-23 edge in shots on Thursday, after earning a 41-26 edge in shots in Waubonsie’s win on Tuesday. Maine posted a 30-29 edge in shots in Game 1 of the series.
Joe Pijanowski scored a goal in Waubonsie’s Game 2 win and had two assists in Game 3. Ziegler scored three goals in the series.
Both Maine and Waubonsie are also still alive in state tournament quarterfinal-round play. Waubonsie plays fifth-seeded Libertyville on Sunday, March 5 at The Edge in Bensenville, while second-seeded Maine takes on a fellow IWHSHL team in seventh-seeded Lincoln-Way on Tuesday, March 7, at, The Edge
Waubonsie, of course, is the returning Illinois state champion.
“I don't like to compare teams, but I told them that last year's team lost to Maine in two games, and then won state,” Dombro said. “There's absolutely no reason this team can't make a run. So I told them they're only two games away from the United Center.”