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Duluth East had all the shots, but Denfeld had a whole family of Thompson boys, and all three of them made major contributions as the Hunters stunned East 5-4 Tuesday night at Heritage Center. It was the first time Denfeld had beaten East in 18 years, and in the ensuing two decades East has ridden to the heights of Class AA prominence, while Denfeld has worked hard but struggled for equilibrium in Class A.
This team is different, though. East is every bit as prominent, but Denfeld has already made impressive strides, such as beating Hermantown -- the top Class A power north of the Twin Cities -- to end December with what some suggested was the biggest Denfeld victory in two decades. Two weeks later, Denfeld beats East -- the top Class AA power north of the Twin Cities. Consider that after East lost 2-0 to Breck at the Schwann Cup, the Greyhounds responded by dealing lopsided defeats to Edina, Minnetonka, Blaine and Moorhead, all by either 4-1 or 5-1, and all on the road.
East outshot the Hunters 56-19, which is where Zach Thompson came through, but two goals and two set-up assists by Alex Thompson boosted Denfeld to a 5-2 lead midway through the third period. Everything had to break right for the Hunters to pull off the monumental victory, but make no mistake, this Denfeld team has enough character and competitive hunger to create opportunities, and enough flat-out talent to capitalize on those opportunities. Three of those talented lads are senior twins Zach Thompson, the goaltender, and Alex Thompson, the skilled and clever forward, while sophomore defenseman Nick Thompson, a tall and lanky blue-liner whose arms seem to telescope to swat pucks away from foes, also came up with a huge assist on the second Denfeld goal.
Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley said, “We needed 20 guys to work together, and that’s what we got. It was a total team effort. I don’t pay attention to statistics, but I guess the last time we beat them was in the 1994-95 season. It was 2-1.”
East coach Mike Randolph amended Smalley’s memory. “It was 2-0,” Randolph said. “We beat ’em
13-0 the first time we played ’em that season, then they shut out Spehar and beat us 2-0.”
A near-capacity crowd at Heritage saw the game open in typical fashion, with the Hunters hustling to defuse the Greyhounds and not seeming to be concerned that East was getting all the shots. The shot counter read 12-1 at one point in the first period, and Kyler Chartier staked the Hounds to a 1-0 lead, then the shot advantage swelled to 19-2 by the first intermission.
Denfeld tied it when Steven Maciver, son of former UMD star Norm Maciver, fired from the left slot to score at 3:05 of the second period. The Hunters were killing a penalty later in the middle period when East attacked at high speed. But Nick Thompson intervened at his blue line, deflecting away a pass that might have put Meirs Moore in clean. Nick Thompson passed ahead to brother Alex, who lagged a soft but perfect pass just ahead of a cluster of skaters going into East’s zone. Patrick Potswald emerged from the cluster ahead of the pack, picked up the puck, deked, and lifted a shot into the upper left corner for a dazzling short-handed goal and a 2-1 Denfeld lead.
East swelled its shooting edge to 36-9 after two periods, but couldn’t solve Zach Thompson in the second period, so the Hunters took their 2-1 edge into the second intermission. East opened the third period with the equalizer as Jack Forbort scored a stunning goal, breaking in from the left, putting a move on Zach Thompson, then lunging across the goal mouth, tucking his backhander under the goalie an instant before landing in a sitting position.
At 2-2, East kept racking up shots, but Denfeld stayed patient, absorbing the Greyhound pressure and letting Zach Thompson handle whatever got through. East’s offensive barrage made the outcome seem inevitable, but not to these Hunters. Denfeld picked its spots, and what looked like a 2-on-3 changed abruptly when East’s defenders converged on Potswald, who managed to nudge the puck ahead to Alex Larson, who raced in alone, cut to his right, and beat Dylan Parker with a backhander at 4:46 to break the tie for a 3-2 Denfeld lead.
Alex Thompson then took center stage. He made a slick move to get past the Hound forecheckers along the boards and escape from his end, then rushed up the right side before drilling a perfect shot, high to the short-side, at 7:28. A goal and two assists was a big night for Alex Thompson, but he wasn’t done. At 10:40, he flipped the puck in toward the East goal. Parker came out and played it, and if he gauged how swiftly Thompson was approaching, he mis-gauged it, because as he cleared the puck behind the net, Thompson sped past, overtook the puck behind the net, and swung out on the left to jam in a wraparound for a shocking 5-2 Denfeld lead.
The Greyhounds then intensified their attack, aided by an untimely Denfeld penalty. Jory Marinac scored on the power play, shooting a screened shot from the right point that Zach Thompson never saw to cut the deficit to 5-3 with 2:12 remaining. With 1:40 left, East defenseman Meirs Moore moved in from the blue line and scored through a scramble at 15:20. That cut the deficit to 5-4 with 1:40 remaining.
Denfeld coach Smalley called time out, rested his troops for what he knew would be a final onslaught, and sent out a group of his top players -- Steven Maciver centering Alex Thompson and Levi Talarico, with Nick Thompson and Alex Cowan on defense. They helped Zach Thompson hold off the Hounds. After an icing, Smalley sent out Reid Lemker for a crucial faceoff in the defensive zone, and Zach Thompson had a lot of help before being swarmed after a 52-save gem.
“He was unbelievable,” said Randolph. “They have a lot of Thompsons, and all of them played well tonight. But in goal, (Zach) played the game he had to play to beat us.”
POPCORN WAS GREAT
It seemed like a great idea. The Zinema movie theaters put on a neat promotional deal last Saturday night, offering a free opportunity to watch the monumental Vikings-Packers playoff game on the big movie screen. Concessions would be open, and seats were first-come, first-served. There were four of us, and we went down Superior Street for a pasta dinner at Va Bene Berarducci restaurant. Perfect dinner, and a nice walk for three blocks to the Zinema. We sat in the middle of the back row.
A lot of folks wore their Vikings purple or Packer green. I wore a vintage Duluth Eskimos sweater. Can’t get more impartial than that.
The game, of course, was anticlimactic. How a hundred or so media types could swarm the Vikings practice enclosure every day and have no idea that Christian Ponder wouldn’t play quarterback because of a tender right forearm is astounding. But Joe Webb at least might offer a different look than whatever the Packers had in mind to harness Ponder. Webb can run, and complements Adrian Peterson’s forceful rushing threat.
At the start of the season, and all season long, I complained that coach Leslie Frazier apparently had decided to never play Webb. If the Vikings were winning big, or getting blown out, Ponder stayed in at quarterback. My argument was that Ponder would play better if he came out now and then when he was having a tough time, and watch Webb run the offense. At the same time, I thought, Webb needed some chances to take over, just in case he had to at some point. But no. Here it was playoff time, and Joe Webb, strong runner and erratic passer, who might be less-erratic if he ever had the chance to get into quarterbacking rhythm, was forced to start and go all the way -- even though he hadn’t thrown a single pass all season.
Webb made a couple of inspiring runs, and threw a couple of decent passes, but this was the Packers day. Aaron Rodgers had a full complement of receivers, and the Packer defense spread out from one side of the field to the other to contain Peterson. In the process, they also contained Webb. The Vikings defense, meanwhile, so effective in beating the Packers seven days earlier in the Metrodome, couldn’t stop Rodgers and the Packers, and the outcome was decided long before the game was over.
The view in the Zinema was excellent, though, but I was surprised at how little heckling and only good-natured cheering was issued by the Packer fans and, on rare occasions, by the Vikings fans. By the fourth quarter, we were even ready for a little popcorn. They use real butter on the corn at Zinema, which is a special treat.
So the Vikings are done, and the Packers move on, playing at San Francisco against a very good 49ers team that beat them in Green Bay to open the season. My pick before the playoffs started was Seattle to go all the way. In a year of brilliant rookie quarterbacks, the Seahawks have the best one in Russell Wilson, and Marshawn Lynch is the closest replica to Adrian Peterson in the NFL. The Seahawks go to Atlanta, and my guess is that the sizzling Seahawks will outplay the Falcons both on offense and defense and move on.