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Minnetonka corrals Ponies

By Loren Nelson, Editor, 12/22/11, 11:00AM CST

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Vinni Lettieri notches hat trick, third line shines as No. 2 Skippers rout Stillwater


Minnetonka senior Phil Katopodis celebrates his second-period goal against Stillwater. Photo by Helen Nelson

 Stay away from the catching glove. Create traffic in front of the goal. Jump on those rebounds.

In the lead up to the Thursday, Dec. 23 matchup between two of the state’s remaining 10 unbeaten teams, there was a steady chatter in the Minnetonka locker room about how to beat Stillwater goaltender Blake Cates. 
 
The Ponies were off to a 4-0-2 start but had been relying on Cates the way a skydiver depends on a parachute. 
 
“We wanted to get these guys the message,” Stillwater coach Phil Housley said in explaining why he opted to start junior Colton Anderson in place of Cates, who ranks seventh in the state with a .936 save percentage. “As a team, how do we measure up without Blake?”
 
The Minnetonka forward line of senior Phil Katopodis and juniors Jared Ridge and Justin Bader very well might have missed the announcement of Stillwater’s starting lineup. They played against Anderson just they way they’d been schooled to go after Cates.
 
“Nothing changed really,” Katopodis said. “We just kept playing our game.”
 
A minute-plus snapshot of the Skippers’ third line in action pretty much summarizes what “our game” means to the trio. After working the puck deep in the Stillwater zone, Katopodis, Ridge and Bader played a game of keep-away with the Ponies. Mixing in the occasional shot on goal and a steady supply of hard hits in the corners, the trio controlled the play for so long they eventually were forced abandon the puck and exit the Stillwater zone for a line change.

Minnetonka's Max Coatta, left, tries to steal the puck from Stillwater defenseman Zac Eder-Zdelchik. Photo by Helen Nelson

 “They have been really responsible in their own end, but tonight they started to get a couple of bounces and they really got the forecheck going,” Minnetonka coach Brian Urick said about the forward unit. “It was good because they have worked so hard, for them to get some recognition and some points on the board, I’m really proud of them.”

 
Katopodis, Bader and Ridge each had a goal and an assist. Bader scored in sniperlike fashion on the second period, ripping a shot that sent Anderson’s water bottle flying off the top of the goal. 
 
Ridge’s goal came with 3 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third period and put the Skippers ahead 7-1, forcing a running clock.
 
“They are playing outstanding,” said Minnetonka junior forward Vinni Lettieri, who scored three goals. “They have played outstanding this whole season. They really are doing all the systems the coaches talk about, and that’s why they are so successful. They are working together.
“It’s been fun watching them.”
 
Rule No. 1 for a third line on a team with two dominant scoring lines ahead of it in the pecking order is to keep the puck out of your own net. Under any circumstances DO NOT allow the other team to score. Of course, it’s only natural that Katopodis, Bader and Ridge isn’t only interested in playing great defense. Scoring goals can be fun, too.
 
“Our line wasn’t really clicking before,” Katopodis said. “We just kind of got together and had a little line meeting, a couple line meetings, and that got us going. 
 
“We just talked about getting the puck in deep. Bader, he’s fast, so he is going to be the first or second guy every time. And just work hard.”
 
The trio finished with six points, almost equaling its season total entering the game.
 
“That’s probably as good as we’ve played all season,” Katopodis said.

Statistics, Summary

Game Recap

 Junior Vinni Lettieri scored three goals, and No. 2-ranked Minnetonka got a goal from each member of its third line as it overpowered Stillwater 8-1 on Thursday, Dec. 22, at the Pagel Activity Center in Minnetonka.

Lettieri, who has committed to play at the University of Minnesota, scored a goal in each period. Two of his goals came on power plays as he boosted his season scoring total to a team-best 23 points. He also has a team-best 10 goals.
 
Unbeaten Minnetonka (8-0-0) also got a stellar outing from its third-line trio of senior Phil Katopodis and juniors Jared Ridge and Justin Bader. They spent most of the game buzzing the Ponies in the corners and grinding for scoring chances in front of the goal. 
 
Katopodis and Bader each scored in the second period as the Skippers surged to a 4-0 lead. Ridge scored his goal in the third period as Minnetonka eventually forced running team because it had a lead of six goals or more.
 
The loss was the first of the season for Stillwater (4-1-2) which, in surprise move, started junior Colton Anderson in goal instead of senior standout Blake Cates. 
 
Anderson, who had little chance to prevent most of the Minnetonka goals, made 27 saves. Minnetonka starter Paul Ciaccio, also a junior, stopped 11 of 12 shots.
 
Stillwater senior defenseman Robert Click ruined the Skippers’ shutout bid in the third period when his blast from the point beat Ciaccio.

Vinni Lettieri

1. Vinni Lettieri, Minnetonka
The junior forward set up the Skippers’ first goal by one-timing a pass from behind the net from Max Coatta through the crease to Connor Thie, who needed only to deposit the puck into an empty net. Lettieri, who has committed to play at the University of Minnesota, went from playmaker to playfinisher the rest of the way, registering three goals -- including one on a breakaway -- to give him a team-best 10 this season.

 
Bader, a 6-foot-3 junior forward, scored a gorgeous second-period goal on a top-shelf shot that sent the water bottle flying off the net. He also set up Phil Katopodis’ second-period goal as the Skippers’ third line amassed three goals as part of a six-point night. 
 
The pesky Thie was a forechecking whirlwind who repeatedly harassed the Stillwater defense into turnovers that led to Skippers’ scoring chances. A 5-foot-8 junior, Thie finished with a goal and an assist.

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Moorhead's Jack Stetz (21) throws his arms up as he and his teammates celebrated the win. ] ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souffle@startribune.com