The high school hockey season begins the final turn toward the finish this weekend, and both Brighton and Hartland begin that turn with a pair of games that put the spotlight squarely on Livingston County.
The Bulldogs and Eagles, ranked No. 1 in Division 1 and 2 respectively, will play host to teams they have had some hard fought history, both at home.
Brighton takes on No. 2-ranked Detroit Catholic Central at the Kensington Valley Ice House at 5 p.m., while Hartland takes on No. 7 Livonia Stevenson at 7 p.m. at the Hartland Sports Center.
“For a lot of years, we didn’t get the opportunity to play them until the tournament,” Brighton coach Paul Moggach said Friday. “Now, getting a game in-season with them is a tribute to all of those who worked so hard to put us in the position to have this game.”
This is the first time the teams have not met in the season opener since they began playing regular-season games a few years back.
Moggach expects the same Shamrocks program he’s grown familiar with over the years.
“They’re usually deep,” he said. “They’ll play four lines, they always compete hard and they’re a hard-skating team. They’ll be tough competition. They’re always one of the best teams in the state, and if you get to the state finals, you have to go through them. They’re always there.”
In three of the last four years, Brighton has met them in the final, with Catholic Central winning twice. It’s possible they could meet again in the finals in March.
But that’s five weeks off, an eternity for coaches who worry about the next game.
“I think we’re ready for this one,” Moggach said. “I think we come in pretty confident.”
Hartland is playing host to a Stevenson team that knocked the Eagles out of the tournament in last year’s semifinals en route to a third berth in the Division 2 finals in four years.
“Any time in the last five years Hartland and Stevenson have gotten together, it’s been a battle,” Hartland coach Rick Gadwa said. “They’re an extremely well-coached program. Their work ethic is extremely high and we look forward to playing them.”
The Eagles (16-1) are coming of a pair of victories at a showcase in Chelsea over Novi and Livonia Churchill, the latter a come-from-behind 5-3 win.
“In our last game, we didn’t start on time,” Gadwa said, referring to an early 2-0 deficit. “If we don’t start on time (today), we’re going to be in a whole heap of trouble.
“We’re going to have to match their speed,” he continued. “They’re always quick, they’re a playoff-type team, they always play a good hard style, they like to chip pucks, they like to get it deep and get it at the net as often as possible, and we’re going to have to match that.”
For both teams, the final month of the season features championship matchups, division or league, a trip to the Trenton Showcase next week, and the beginning of the state tournament at the end of February.
“It’s a fun time of year, and we’re looking forward to it,” Gadwa said.