High School Hockey Rises and Shines

John Gilbert

Bob Dylan once wrote “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In this winter of endless wind-chill, we might paraphrase a little. If you were at Heritage Center Monday night, you might say “You don’t need a calendar to know that it’s almost playoff time.”
The event was Perkin’s High School Hockey Frenzy, featuring a doubleheader of Duluth-area rivals, and you couldn’t have asked for two more emotionally gripping games. The perfect post-Super Bowl transition, one night after Seattle left Denver splattered around the field at East Rutherford, N.J.
We had a classic Class A rivalry, with No. 1 ranked Hermantown facing a scrambling but dangerous Denfeld team, followed by a classic Class AA rivalry between highly regarded Duluth East against a rebuilding and inexperienced Cloquet-Esko-Carlton.
Game 1 hardly left time to hit the Heritage concession stand for a bratwurst. As expected, Hermantown stormed down the ice, outshooting Denfeld 11-4 in the first period and takng a 1-0 lead when Kari Ochs scored early. But Reid Lemker was about to have a huge night for the Hunters. He raced down the slot and converted a Nick Thompson feed to tie it 1-1 in the second, and fed Steven Maciver for a goal two minutes later and Denfeld led 2-1. Hermantown pounced on a turnover midway through the second period, and Kyle Amundson wound up scoring to make it 2-2 after two. Bratwurst time.
Hermantown gained a 3-2 lead with a power-play goal in the third, but with 3:09 left, Alex Larson tied it 3-3 for the pesky Hunters. With 2:14 left, Thompson, Denfeld’s lanky junior defenseman, went off for hooking, but it was the Hunters to stunned the big crowd, as Maciver took off with a swiped puck on the right side of a 2-on-1, feeding Lemker for a short-handed goal with only 1:59 remaining, putting the Hunters up 4-3. But that was 20 seconds too long for the Hunters, as the Hawks swarmed the crease with goalie Jace Thomas pulled for a sixth attacker, and Cole Koepke was credited for shoving the puck past Wes Cook with 19.7 seconds remaining.
The Hawks outshot Denfeld 13-6 in the crazy third period, and 12-2 through a scoreless 8-minute overtime, outshooting the Hunters 47-25 for the game, but Cook came up with all the answers to hold a 4-4 tie.
On the heels of last week’s 3-2 victory over Marshall, the tie felt like a victory for Denfeld. At the same time, it might not hurt the Hawks a bit, coming as a wake-up call for what should be a wild and crazy Section 7A tournament.

Then There Was Game 2

It’s been a long and frustrating time for Cloquet coach Dave Esse, always trying to figure out how to beat Duluth East, but almost always falling just excruciatingly short. This season, the Lumberjacks faced perhaps their biggest rebuilding task, but Esse is enjoying it. “These kids do everything we say, and I’m really enjoying working with them,” said Esse.
The Greyhounds, meanwhile, frustrate coach Mike Randolph because he keeps sensing that the one thing that shouldn’t be a variable -- work ethic -- seems to waver. Monday night, it looked like business as usual when defenseman Alex Trapp flung a shot from the right point. It his Cloquet goalie Zack Strom right in the glove, popped up and over his shoulder, and landed in the goal.
But the Lumberjacks battled back, and they were not outworked, despite the 1-0 deficit. They gave up a couple of breakaways, but Strom was certain to make amends for the weak first goal, and the score remained 1-0 until the third period. Suddenly, the Lumberjacks broke up ice 2-on-1, and Kyle Klatt scored -- tying the game 1-1 at 2:18.
That fired up both teams, but at 6:28, Cloquet’s Hunter Roberts found himself alone with the puck on the right boards. He took off for the East goal, and as he approached, he stumbled. It’s possible that the thought of appearing on “America’s Funniest Videos” may have flashed through his mind, but probably not. Instead, he never lost his focus, and as he stumbled forward, he actually seemed to get an extra dose of force on his shot, and he blew it past Howg and into the left edge of the net.
The Lumberjacks had a 2-1 lead, but they also had 10 minutes facing them. As the final minute approached, East’s desperation intensified, and twice they had breakaways, but Strom refused to yield. It ended 2-1, and Esse had one of the most cherished victories of his long and impressive career.
Both coaches were gracious and analytical afterward. They’re friends, these days, having survived uprisings by parents and administrators to remain among the best at their craft.
“Cloquet played really well,” said Randolph. “They played exactly the way they had to play to win. They only had a couple good scoring chances, but they scored on both of them. And we were going through the motions; we got exactly what we deserved.”
Esse, who may had doubted that this particular team would be the one to snap East’s domination of their rivalry, was asked how he managed to get his guys to harness East with only 23 shots, breakaways notwithstanding.
“The first two periods, we didn’t get past their D,” said Esse. “They have more skill than we do, and I know we’ll have peaks and valleys with such a young team. But I expect to win every game. We stressed taking away the middle and eliminating those long passes. We have good kids, and we play good position.This is not rocket science.” Wait a second, coach. I think this one was different. I think this one WAS rocket science!

Seahawk Domination

Sympathy to those who were so convinced Peyton Manning would shred the Seattle defense. Instead, the Seahawks stifled Manning and the Denver Broncos 43-8. Here are some intriguing facts, now that football can go away for a few months:
Seattle had a 53-man roster, and 21 of them were never drafted by any NFL team; 16 other Seahawks were not drafted until after the third round; so only 16 of their 53 players were taken on the first three rounds of the draft; the Seattle offense averaged 26.1 years of age and the defense 26.0 -- so much for veteran experience.