Freeport tops McDowell in PIHL quarterfinals to avenge early season loss

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Monday, April 5, 2021 | 9:46 PM


Kelly Mason took over the Freeport hockey program three years ago, and the Yellowjackets have been searching for a playoff win ever since.

On Monday, in the quarterfinals of the Class A Penguins Cup Playoffs, No. 5 Freeport (15-3-1) finally broke through. Sophomore Caleb Hoffman scored in the second period, Keith Smilowitz added a pair in the third and Jake Suwan scored with 13 seconds left to deliver a 4-0 win over No. 4 McDowell (5-12-2) at Frozen Pond Arena.

“It feels great because this senior group, I’ve had them for the past three years, and they’ve been a part of a lot of struggles,” Mason said. “So this year has been good because they knew they had a good team. They’ve been working hard. They’ve been committed, so now to see that benefit is really good. I mean, I took it in for a second to watch them celebrate because it’s been a while coming.”

At the beginning of March, McDowell handed Freeport one of its three losses (4-3), but the Yellowjackets controlled the game from beginning to end Monday. They outshot the Trojans, 47-9, and, outside of a few counterattacks, the Yellowjackets controlled the possession throughout the evening.

Freeport held a 10-3 shot advantage in the first period, and Mason and Smilowitz said they could feel one was bound to get through sooner or later.

“It was just a matter of time,” Mason said. “I just kept telling them to keep working because we were getting the opportunities.”

In the second period, after coming up short on a power play, sophomore Caleb Hoffman scored his 19th goal of the season to give the Yellowjackets a 1-0 lead.

With just under 4 minutes left in the period, junior forward Marcus Trask wrapped around the net and delivered a pass into the middle of the ice where Hoffman was ready and waiting for the finish.

“That broke the ice, and it was a great play because we’re always talking about talking on the ice and that play all started with Caleb recognizing that he had the opportunity,” Mason said. “He was yelling to Marcus who was going behind the net, and it was a beautiful pass. We just needed to get that first one.”

The Yellowjackets broke it open in the third period when Smilowitz, who leads the team in points with 20 goals and 10 assists after Monday, finally scored after being stopped through the first two periods.

Moments before his first goal, he missed a one-on-one breakaway but came back moments later and answered with a slick move past a defender and a shot to the right of the goaltender.

“That felt great, but I wish I wouldn’t have missed the breakaway,” Smilowitz said. “That kind of fueled the last rush up the ice, but I figured it would come sooner or later.”

Smilowitz added his second goal 25 seconds later.

With nine saves, freshman Tyler Lang recorded his second straight shutout — his only two of the season.

“He’s solid, and he wanted this game because I don’t think he felt like he played his best game whenever we played them earlier in the season,” Mason said. “For him to get them back and get his shutout, we’re happy for him.”

It was a big night for the Yellowjackets, but they have their eyes set on more than just one playoff win.

“The first thing I told them was, ‘That is one,’ ” Mason said. “We have our eyes set on three more, and that’s really what our goal has been all season long. I haven’t been afraid to tell these guys from the very beginning that they are a good hockey team.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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