The playoffs are a clean slate, and everything in the past goes down the drain. The Highland Park Giants surprised the Deerfield Warriors Thursday night to begin the Varsity Champions Pool B Pool Play to prove that. A crowd of hundreds showed up to Twin Rinks Ice Pavilion for the rivalry matchup, the fourth time these teams would face each other this year.
The Warriors came into this game 2-0-1 versus their District 113 counterpart. Perhaps they thought they could breeze through to the end.
At least, that’s what it looked like after just a few minutes, when Deerfield alternate captain Luke Lewis took a shot on goalie Shai Lichtenfeld, and Lichtenfeld waffleboarded the puck away, but Josh Fein was there to bury the biscuit. Deerfield had the momentum and the energy until the Giants finally solved Deerfield goalie Seth Miller, as Sam Shachtman scored at 11:35 to tie things up.
For Shachtman, things got heated after that, with a riled up Sam going to the box for an offsetting minor along with Deerfield’s Russell Handelman for a minor scrum. It could be the senior’s last minutes in the Twin Rinks penalty box.
Deerfield answered back at 13:24 taking the lead on a goal from Luke Lewis, the first period ended with the Deerfield faithful pleased with a 2-1 lead.
The Giants defense really strengthened up to start the second period, winning the period 2-0. The first goal was on a beautifully executed play with the goalie being screened as Zach Simon took Sam Howard’s pass and beat the goalie at 4:26. Later in the period, co-captain Jack Elbaum finished off the shot of his partner Shachtman, leading the Giants to a 3-2 lead going into the intermission.
The Giants kept their foot on the gas pedal to begin the third, when Ben Abelson took a loose puck in front of Miller’s net to give the Giants a 4-2 lead early on. Two penalties and a Deerfield timeout later, the Warriors took the driver’s seat and scored on a 5-on-3 opportunity, closing the gap to one. The Giants once again answered, after initially scoring, then the goal being called off, then Elbaum putting it in for good, making the score 5-3. Sam Shachtman closed things off with an empty netter at 14:54.
Despite the Warriors outshooting the Giants 36 to 20, goals win games, not shots. Final score: Highland Park 6, Deerfield 3. Lots of credit to Highland Park goalie Shai Lichtenfeld, with many of the 33 saves coming with difficulty and velocity.
It's no doubt that Deerfield is having a magical season. The Warriors, coached by Randy Schlesinger, turned things around after finishing near the bottom of the Varsity Champions division, dropping down to Varsity Gold for the playoffs for the 2018-2019 season, in which Del Morris’s Evanston Wildkits won the league.
Evanston also dropped down and advanced to the championship in dramatic fashion, scoring two goals to tie it in the last 30 seconds of regulation, then winning in overtime. They then captured the championship over Crystal Lake South, winning by one goal.
Deerfield finished in 11th in the league out of 13 last year (7-15-2), this year, they finish the regular season with a winning record (10-6-6), and 7th out of 12 teams. Overall, the Warriors total overall record stands at 29-9-13.
The Warriors were undefeated for the decade going into this game. Deerfield’s last loss came against #1 seeded Warren (who is also having an outstanding season) on December 7, 2019. Since then three games tied vs. New Trier Blue, Highland Park, and New Trier White for the Warriors and seven straight wins after that put the Warriors on not only the seven game winning streak, but a ten game point streak.
For Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Warriors traveled to Buffalo, Minnesota for a high school hockey tournament. To say they dominated would be an understatement, breezing their way through four games and a championship. Oh, and by the way, Deerfield outscored their opponents over the three day span by a score of 24-1. That weekend was a success for the whole program, as the white (JV) team came 3rd overall in their division. For the varsity team, it’s the first tournament since winning up north in Wisconsin last year, winning the championship over Scholastic Hockey League’s Barrington Broncos. For the JV team, it’s also been over a year since a tournament championship, with the most recent one being the Thanksgiving tournament hosted by Stevenson.
Luke Lewis and Jack Gerber lead the way for the Warriors, Gerber lead the league with league points, (30) and Lewis could very possibly break 100 points for the entire season. Coming into the playoffs, he has 78 points over 43 games. Keep an eye out for number seven in red, and don’t blink, you might have already missed the speedster. Last year he played Juniors making the switch because he wanted to represent his school. The numbers speak for themselves when you look at the differences between last year without Lewis against this year with Lewis.
The Warriors wouldn’t be where they are though without some help on the other end, where senior two time all star Seth Miller has been a staple in goal, steering away 92.1% of his shots, holding a goals against average of 1.92.
The Warriors move to 0-1-0 in the first stage of the playoffs, a five game round robin. Deerfield Varsity is back in action 2 days later again at Twin Rinks on Saturday, February 1 at 5:40pm vs. Libertyville/Vernon Hills. The Warriors are undefeated in two games versus the IceCats this year, so they are no underdog to a strong start of 2-0-0. Seth Miller isn’t going to get ahead of himself, though. Miller said before the game, “The playoffs are completely different. The regular season means nothing. One mistake against anybody could be the end.” Libertyville will also be playing their second game of the playoffs on Saturday against Deerfield. They will have quick turn around time, coming off of a game at Lake Forest the day before, the top seed in the pool, second overall. That game will take place at 6:30pm at Lake Forest College.
Meanwhile, the Giants are on their way to change things around, things have not gone their way in league play so far. They finished 10th, with only 16 points over 22 games. Their biggest highlight so far this year is winning the Wright Angle Tournament in Madison, but a huge beginning for them to begin the playoffs at 1-0-0. Their next game for the playoffs will be at Evanston taking place at the new Robert Crown Center, Saturday at 8:20pm. After that they come back home Thursday the 6th for a home game vs. the IceCats.
Leading the way for the Giants are co-captains Sam Shachtman (58 points) and Jack Elbaum, (51 points) who are both seniors, and this could have very well been their final rivalry game. If so, they got the last laugh.
The teams came into this game having played each other three times. The Warriors came out on top two of the three games, obliterating Highland Park in a Veteran’s Day special league game, and the annual Thanksgiving game that had, as always, standing room only. The third game was a 2-2 tie in Highland Park. It’s the first time in several years that the Warriors have won the Thanksgiving rivalry game. But this year, the playoff game is the first time Highland Park has scored more than three against Deerfield.
Should Deerfield and Highland Park come in the top two spots of the six team pool and each win their semifinal, they could have a rematch for the championship in a best-of-three series. The IHSHL North Central playoffs are only heating up, and ihshlnorthcental.com is your one stop shot to scores, schedules, stats, news, and more. So, stay tuned for more playoff updates!