Hawks Fly High At Midseason

This is not the usual Hermantown Hawks hockey team. In recent years, you would find the Hawks roster filled with hard-working kids who are smart with the puck, and a couple of them stood out for their ability to fabricate goals whenever they were needed. After a lot of departures, coach Bruce Plante has assembled a new team that doesn’t seem to have that magic hand at scoring, but with a crop of well-prepared and hard-working skaters, the results seem to be about the same.
Which is to say, “winning.”
 “We lost some scoring, and we lost five defensemen,” said Plante. “But we did have a card up our sleeve -- we had two goalies back.” With a number of similar worker-bees up front, Plante moved Ryan Carlson from center to defense. “He played defense until we moved him up to center as a junior last year,” said Plante. “Now we’ve moved him back to D.”
It also helped that family employment moved the Gotz family to Hermantown from Hibbing, so sophomore Eric Gotz adds another defenseman to the picture. The D-corps has played well, as have the goaltenders, although it took awhile for the coach to get comfortable with the goal-by-committee approach.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are pretty much the same, while it seems that most teams have one or two guys they can count on to come up with goals,” said Plante. “We’ve got several other guys sitting out who are about as good as the guys playing. We only have about five guys back who played a lot, and we’ve got a system where a lot of kids play a year or two of JV before they get the chance to play varsity. You work your way up. It’s different this year, kind of nerve-wracking, in a way.”
But the Hawks are doing just fine. Before our Polar Vortex plunged us into a week where starting your car became the prime sporting event, the midpoint of our hockey season struck as surely as the gong to signal January 1st has arrived.
One of the more anticipated games was one between Hermantown and Marshall -- two teams that have both made it a habit in recent years to reach the state tournament. With some assorted sectional shifting, it was possible for both to make it, and both have usually acquitted themselves well. Hermantown, the dynasty operated by coach Bruce Plante, has become best known for almost winning state titles, before stubbornly yielding to private school powerhouse St Thomas Academy.
Both of the above scenarios won’t be recreated this season. St. Thomas Academy, at long last, has moved up to Class AA to battle the big boys for state honors. Meanwhile, an adjustment in sections (again) puts Hermantown back into Section 7A, right there opposite Marshall, and the two immediately become co-favorites, even though Denfeld and Hibbing might challenge that assumption this year.
So it was more than just a hot time in Mars-Lakeview Arena when Hermantown invaded Marshall’s turf last week. The place was jammed, with fans filling every available seat, and also standing all around the top of the stands, and circling the boards at both ends.
The first period belonged to Marshall. Luke Pavelich had the puck deep in the corner and zipped a goal-mouth pass that sophomore Luke Dow deftly tipped past Hermantown goaltender Jace Thomas at 8:42. Furthermore, the Hilltoppers did an excellent job at both ends of the ice, bottling up the Hawks with an intense forecheck, and preventing the Hawks from getting into serious scoring range at the other end.
But at 14:42, the Hawks found a way to get the puck to Ryan Kero, a junior center who had gotten surprisingly free in the slot. Kero shot, Alex Murray blocked it, but Kero surprisingly remained free to fetch his own rebound and flip it in for a 1-1 tie.
“About the only adjustment we made after the first period was to change our breakout a little, and get our defensemen to carry the puck a little more,” said Plante.
The teams battled at 1-1 through most of the second period, when suddenly the Hawks simply took over. Scott Wasbotten, who assisted on Kero’s goal, scored on a deflection at 11:41 for a 2-1 Hermantown lead. Murray came up with a pair of spectacular saves on Wyatt Aamodt first, and then on Wasbotten. But the Hawks had come to life, and when a brief scrap resulted in a Hawks power play, Kero squeezed a power play shot past Murray at 12:37. Exactly 10 seconds later, the Hawks swept in again and Sam Gibson scored. In the span of 1:06, Hermantown had jacked the score from 1-1 to 4-1.
Cole Koepke made it 5-1 to open the third, and Thomas kept the Toppers at bay until 5:15, when Cam McClure scored after a strong rush through traffic by Anthony Miller. But Gotz scored a power play goal at 10:25, and Hermantown left the building with a 6-2 victory.
“We’re 10-2 right now, and before the season, if you had told me we’d be 10-2 at this point I’d have said ‘no way,’ ” said Plante. “But we’ve competed against the good teams. We played well against Wayzata, but they got us with three power-play goals.”
The Hawks lost their game at Grand Rapids to the freez-out this week, and will make it up next month. Next up for Hermantown is St. Cloud Cathedral on Friday. But the Hawks are just marching along, one game at a time. Maybe spreading the goal-scoring out more than usual, but finding success all the same.
Among other interesting regional games postponed by the sub-zero weather was Tuesday’s game between East and Denfeld at Heritage Center. It will be made up Saturday at 1 p.m. ... The UMD men’s team returns to NCHC action with a series at Nebraska-Omaha this weekend. The Mavericks gained one-up on the Bulldogs earlier this week when Philip Beaulieu, Duluth East’s outstanding defenseman, announced he has accepted a scholarship to UNO...
The true character of the Minnesota Wild will be tested for the next couple of weeks, including the current road trip, which finds them playing without Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu -- first-line linemates who are currently partners on injured reserve. Both are recovering from broken bones suffered while blocking shots, Parise in his foot and Koivu with a fracture in his ankle. Both are headed for their Olympic teams, Parise to the U.S. and Koivu to Finland, if he heals fast enough.
Among the more questionable missing persons on those Olympic teams is Jason Pominville, a U.S. stalwart who has proven to the Wild followers to be quick, strong, smart, extremely responsible defensively, and a scorer of big goals -- so why would Team USA want him? Also, Team Canada, bristling with the biggest names in the hockey world, somehow managed to not take Joe Thornton, San Jose’s veteran star who leads the NHL in assists with 43 and who is among the best two-way players in the league, and diminutive Martin St. Louis, an always-dangerous point-getter for Tampa Bay. As good as Pominville, Thornton and St. Louis are, they would be even better on the bigger (200-by-100) Olympic rinks than the congestion-fostering NHL rinks (200-by-85).
    Also, in case you missed it, the U.S. failed to defend its World Junior title, losing to Russia in the quarterfinals. Canada lost 5-1 to Finland in the semifinals, when Sweden beat Russia as well. So in the Gold Medal game, Finland beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime in a game of two technically skilled and creative teams, while Russia beat Canada 3-2 for the Bronze.