If there was any play that could represent Rogers’ 4-3 victory over No. 7-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral, it would be Neal Smith’s breakaway goal.
The Royals won the Tuesday, Feb. 14 matchup at Rogers Ice Arena with electric energy, hustle, and a little bit of flash and fun sprinkled over the top.
Smith’s goal combined all three elements in about as strange a play as you’ll see in hockey.
First, senior forward Andrew Smith fought for a puck, poking at it, diving headfirst and slapping it forward. Then, the puck deflected off of both Smith and a defenders' stick, fluttering end-over-end on a rainbow arc high in the air.
Perfectly timed, Neal Smith held up at the blue line and played wide receiver, grabbing it and moving in on St. Cloud Cathedral goaltender Connor Amundson.
Unfortunately for Amundson, Smith had a bit of inside knowledge ready in his arsenal.
“In the locker room between periods, our goalies told us that he cheats glove,” Smith said after the game. “I tried to do a little ‘Datsyuk’ and I caught him five-hole.”
The Datsyuk he is talking about is all-star forward Pavel Datsyuk, a Detroit Red Wing notorious for his ability to dangle opposing goaltenders.
The inspiration worked and the goal tied the game at 2. From there both Smith and the team never looked back. Smith had two other goals in the game to add to his season total of 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists). He is second on the team in scoring, only behind senior forward Zach Hnath who has 44.
Smith insists there is no friendly competition between the two buddies for scoring title bragging rights.
“No, we don’t really care about that, we do whatever it takes to win,” Smith said. “If he beats me, congratulations to him, but I’m not too worried about that.”
Hnath wasn’t buying it however, responding later with a laugh.
“Oh yeah, there’s a little competition going, he might not say there is but there definitely is,” Hnath said. “Who doesn’t wanna finish with the most points? It’s just fun scoring a lot of goals with him; it’s been a great year.”
Although the fancy goals and bulging point totals are nice, Rogers coach Tim Marchand was thankful for the other abilities Smith brought to the team.
“Neal, he’s just a workhorse,” Marchand said. “That kid, he’s got a motor that just doesn’t quit out there. You can expect that every single time he steps on the ice, shift in and shift out he’ll give you everything he’s got. He’s a very quick player and obviously can put the puck away.”
With the win, the Royals’ seniors capped their season with a special victory, and if they do recieve the No. 2 seed in Section 5A, they earned another chance to play at home during the playoffs.
“It’s our last regular season home game,” Smith said. “I’ve been looking forward to this forever, and now that it’s here I don’t want it to end.”
The way a hockey player tucks his jersey varies from skater to skater. Some like to go with the classic one-sided tuck. Some go completely un-tucked, and some rock a tuck in the back.
Few however have enough guts to go full-circle.
That is, except for Rogers' senior forwad Zach Hnath.
Hnath stands out on the ice, clashing in a crowd due to his audacious and rare 'full tuck.'
“Last year I was gonna do it, but my coach told me I couldn’t – he just thought it was really ugly,” Hnath said laughing. “I mean it is! I got black laces, a full tuck, and I got a bubble on my face.”
The bubble he’s referring to is his clear plastic mask, a style of facemask that is uncommon, and also sticks out in contrast to the standard wired cages.
“This year, I figured, ‘Whatever, it’s my senior year, I’m gonna do it,’ ” Hnath said. “I’m trying to be goofy out there, it’s who I am. I would have a moustache too, but I shave it when we lose and we lost last game.”
In the Royals' 4-3 win over St. Cloud Cathedral, Hnath scored three points, adding to his team-leading 44 (21 goals, 23 assists).
Hnath’s goal and two assists were a fitting way to end a stellar regular season campaign that made him a standout on the ice for his skill and not just his quirky equipment. His training for the year began long before hockey practices started, when Hnath participated in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League, scoring goals for Team Southwest.
“I played with the Minnetonka kids, and they really helped me in the offseason,” he said. “I brought that here.”
Team Southwest featured plenty of star power, and a group of six Minnetonka skaters including star forwards Max Coatta, Sam Rothstein, Connor Thie, Erik Baskin, and Vinni Lettieri.
The extra work and talented competition paid off, considering Hnath has tallied 16 more points than he did during his junior year.
Whatever the Skippers taught Hnath also seems to have translated to him and forward Neal Smith, who have wonderful chemistry on the ice and score in skillful ways. The pair connected for goals twice in the win over St. Cloud Cathedral.
“We like to mix it up a bit,” Hnath said with a smile. “Put on a show.”
A picture perfect Senior Night finished with a thrilling ending for Rogers, as the Royals toppled No. 7-ranked (Class 1A) St. Cloud Cathedral 4-3 on Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Rogers Activity Center in Rogers.
The win has big seeding implications for the two teams, both of which are jostling for the second position behind unbeaten Hermantown in Section 5A. With the win, Rogers may have earned the No. 2 seed.
"That should give us without question the number two seed in the section ..." Rogers coach Tim Marchand said. "What it really means is that we'll probably see these guys again."
If they get the seed, the Royals will be granted home ice during a portion of the postseason, a huge advantage.
Senior forward Neal Smith netted a hat trick for the Royals, (17-6-1) including two goals in the second period that shoveled Rogers out of a 2-1 deficit and into a 3-2 lead. His first goal was on a beautiful, but strange, breakaway that electrified the team and the crowd.
Rogers opened the scoring with a goal from senior Zach Hnath. The Royals held the lead for most of the first period until St. Cloud Cathedral (18-5) got two lightning-quick goals from Sam Wood and Danny Johnston to completely shift the momentum. The goals came nine seconds apart.
Smith completed his hat trick in the third period with a power-play goal, and Ryan Kissner also scored unassisted for the Crusaders.
Senior goaltender Robby Vukelich made 35 saves for the Royals, including a few stunning saves on two-on-one opportunities by the Crusaders.
1. Neal Smith, Rogers
The senior forward scored three times, with two of the goals coming on the power play. He used his wealth of skill to net his goals in picturesque ways, helping the Royals to victory. Smith is second on the team in scoring with 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists).
2. Zach Hnath, Rogers
The points leader for the Royals with 44 (21 goals, 23 assists), Hnath added three to his total with a goal and two assists. He scored the geame's first goal, and pumped energy into the team with his passing.
3. Ryan Kissner, St. Cloud Cathedral
No player scored more than a point for the Crusaders, but Kissner’s goal in the third period was probably the most important of the game for St. Cloud Cathedral. The Crusaders had been down for a long time until he sniped Robby Vukelich with a top-shelf beauty. The goal gave the Crusaders some fight, and they finished strong. The senior forward has 36 points this season (15 goals, 21 assists).