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It sounds like so much alibi, but coaches say it all the time: It’s not winning the game that matters as much as the process, playing the game within the parameters of the game plan.
Fact is, coaches usually say that after a loss, so it sounds like rationalizing. Early in the season, however, getting all the players to pull the same direction is of utmost importance — more than mere winning.
But at this time of the season, winning is all that matters. But in college and high school hockey, playing within the confines of the game plan proves to be valuable, because generally, playing the game the right way leads to winning.
We’ve had a rich season of high-skilled teams and strong performances in the Duluth area, and as we close in on sectional playoffs, several teams have thrust themselves into positions of being contenders just because they have put together all they’ve planned all season and are playing their best right now.
Duluth East has been the measuring stick, because of their strong schedule and their extremely high level of play all season. But there are others.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, for example, has put together a season of continually improving consistency, driven by first-year coach Kevin Smalley. The Lumberjacks declared their high end in a spirited 6-6 tie against East early in the season in Cloquet, and they reaffirmed it last week by following up an upset 1-0 loss against Forest Lake to beat Hermantown 4-2, then stun East with a 5-3 comeback victory at Essentia-Heritage Center on Monday. So when the Lumberjacks hammered Proctor 6-0 this week, it gave them the Lake Superior Conference title, snapping Hermantown’s string of nine straight LSC titles.
That closing surge also showed that you can never take your foot off the pedal, however, when Cloquet ran into an aroused Grand Rapids outfit, which held off Cloquet 4-3 proving it, too, is ready to do some playoff damage.
The other team that has surged into prominence in the Section 7AA domain in the past two weeks is Marshall. The Hilltoppers, with a power-play-unit’s- worth of high-end players, was sailing through the early going, then had some trouble scoring in recent weeks, in a loss to Andover and a tie against Class A Hibbing-Chisholm.
But Marshall got it all back together last week, rallying to knock off No. 2 state AA ranked St. Thomas Academy 4-3, and then coming back last Saturday to ambush Hill-Murray 3-2 in overtime.
Beating St. Thomas Academy was huge for Marshall, but beating Hill-Murray was another major achievement, with back-to-back victories over established Twin Cities Class AA powers. Peter Hansen, the overtime goal-scorer against St. Thomas, also became the hero against Hill-Murray when he scored a power-play goal with less than three minutes left to break a 2-2 tie.That sent Marshall into its season finale at Greenway of Coleraine Tuesday night, and the Hilltoppers came from behind to win 5-2.
The Section 7AA tournament already has East as a guaranteed No. 1 seed, while Andover, Elk River, Cloquet, and Marshall provided a solid supporting cast. The recent peak play by Cloquet and Marshall makes them serious threats, and the suddenly dangerous Grand Rapids Thunderhawks help throw the entire section into the wide-open category.
One thing is certain. When the 7AA quarterfinals run their course, and the semifinals take over AMSOIL Arena on Saturday, February 24, the four teams participating will be playing their best hockey of the season.
Teams playing at their peak are not restricted to high schools. The UMD women’s hockey team can participate, too, but they have confused us all season into not knowing which team will show up.
Are the real Bulldogs the team that swept Ohio State 4-1, 2-1, or the team that lost and tied St. Cloud State? Are they the Bulldogs who were blown out 5-0 by Wisconsin last Friday at AMSOIL Arena, or the team that battled to a 3-1 lead over the same Badgers on Saturday, only to claim a 3-3 tie? The Badgers captured the available extra point for Sam Cogan’s shootout goal as the eighth shooter after the teams had exhausted a scoreless overtime.
That made for a wild Saturday afternoon, because there was just time to watch Marshall play Hill-Murray, then head down to AMSOIL to catch the start of the UMD-Wisconsin finale.
Goaltenders Kristen Campbell of the Badgers and Jessica Convery of UMD stood strong throughout the game, but particularly in the shootout, where each team supplied four shooters, with Wisconsin shooting last. The goalies stoned the first seven alternating shooters before Cogan skated in and fired a bullet into the upper left corner.
Wisconsin didn’t need that extra point because the Badgers already have secured first place and a quarterfinal bye in the WCHA playoffs. UMD, however, gained one valuable point for the official tie against Wisconsin, which allowed them to inch ahead in their battle with Bemidji State for the fourth and final home-ice playoff slot. Despite winning only one of a potential four points against Wisconsin, the Bulldogs gained ground because inched ahead because Bemidji State lost twice to St. Cloud State last weekend.
UMD finishes at Minnesota State-Mankato this weekend, while Bemidji State must go to Ohio State and try to sidetrack the second-place Buckeyes. UMD is as big a favorite at Mankato as Ohio State is against Bemidji, but don’t bet the rent money. There is no doubt UMD will play Bemidji State in a quarterfinal next weekend, the only question is in which rink. That could be pivotal, of course, because the winner will go to the Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena the following weekend, while the loser goes home to turn in their gear.
If the Bulldogs can duplicate the peak of performance they showed against Wisconsin Saturday, they shouldn’t have a problem with the Mavericks, and, in fact, will cause great concern for whomever they might face in the playoffs. That is, however, a very large “if.”