By JAMES COOK
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — What started as a wake-up call Friday turned into a fully-aware Traverse City Central hockey team.
And that wasn't good for Sault Ste. Marie.
The Trojans trailed 6-2 late in the second period and stormed back for an improbable 7-6 overtime victory when Alex Oliver scored on the rebound of a Mitchell Ward shot 1:16 into overtime.
"Wow. You talk about the playoffs being heart-attack hockey," Central coach Chris Givens said. "Heart-attack hockey started a few days early. That was absolutely crazy."
By the time Nico Saco's sprawling goal tied the game up 6-6, much of the TC Central student section was headed across town to see the Trojans and TC West tangle on the basketball court. They missed a hockey classic.
"It was a huge rush," Oliver said. "It felt really great to do it for the seniors on Senior Night in their last regular-season hockey game ever."
Saco reached back for a loose puck in the crease and was able to just get his stick on it and tap it in with 1:13 remaining. Cam Givens and Cooper Macdonell assisted.
Central's massive comeback started in the second period's final minute. Cooper Marshall pounded in the puck from a scrum in front of the net to pull Central with three goals a 6-3 with 45.5 ticks left.
"We came out flat, obviously," Oliver said. "But we put some good shifts together (in the second). Austin Mackey just had a great shift where he went out and had about five hits in one shift. That got me going."
Oliver then scored his first of two goals on the night in the third period's first minute, capitalizing on Soo goalie Nick McKenzie being out of the crease to cut off a Jon Russell break-away. McKenzie charged out and was able to poke check the puck away from Russell, but Oliver dug the puck out from a defender along the boards and was able to quickly shoot into the open net to trim the lead to 6-4.
"He had a great game," Chris Givens said of Oliver. "Besides the goals, he did a lot of the little things and he's a really smart player."
Under a minute later, Buddy Rose tipped a shot through McKenzie's five-hole off a Brady Brantley shot that put Central within a single goal.
Sault Ste. Marie — ranked No. 5 in Division 3 — fell to 17-8 a night after a 4-0 victory over Traverse City West. No. 3-ranked Central finishes the regular season 22-3.
"You have to have games like that," Blue Devils coach John Ferroni said. "And even though he was down 5-1 at one point, (Givens) probably thought that was good for his kids. Sometimes you comes back from that and sometimes you don't. But even if you don't come back from it, you learn something from it. And if you come back, you learn something, too."
Ferroni said he hopes both teams can get to the Final Four so they can root for each other. The Soo was playing at near full strength for first time since before Christmas, aside from forward Kyle Teneyck's absence, and has the look of a team capable of a long playoff run.
"You can't give teams like that time and space," Givens said. "You don't have to try to kill people, but you have to at least get in their way, get in their lanes and seal on the boards. Then in the second period, we started to finish checks a little better and you could see the momentum shift there."
TC Central goalie Bill Vermetten was pulled with 6:32 left in the first period after the Blue Devils scored on one-third of their first nine shots to lead 3-0. Michael Whittersheim came in for the rest of the period, and then Vermetten was inserted back in to start the second.
"Like I said to my buddy Mike (Wittersheim), sometimes we win the game as goaltenders," Vermetten said. "And sometimes the forwards win the games for us. They definitely took this one for us. God bless them. It was definitely their performance tonight."
Vermetten made 17 saves on 18 shots in the last two periods and overtime.
Down 3-0 early, Central got one back on a Connor McGraw goal set up by Reilly deTar, but the Soo answered with goals by Will Gauthier and another for Blake Mastaw to complete the hat trick. McGraw's goal was the senior's second of the season.
"This just started going sideways so fast," Givens said. "I thought about taking a timeout. And then I thought this could be good for us with the playoffs right around the corner. And then we had the intermission, so we could try to regroup that way."
The second period started and ended well for Central.
Saco scored just 20 ticks into the period to make it 5-2, assisted by Joe Videcki and Cooper Macdonell.
Chase Gamelin put the Blue Devils up 6-2 with a slapshot, and the teams played fairly evenly the rest of the stanza, until Marshall scored with 45.5 seconds remaining.
"I'd say it was definitely a wake-up call," Oliver said. "We know we have to go into every game ready from the start. But it's also huge momentum for us going into the playoffs, having a big win like that."
Central starts the Division 2 playoffs Monday, hosting Grand Rapids West Catholic — a 14-9 team that has won four straight — at Howe Arena.