Duluth Denfeld's Levi Talarico (8) fires a puck past Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl goalie Lucas Murray on a second-period breakaway. Photos by Dave Harwig, ViewThroughMyLens.net
There’s something about playoff hockey that separates players from each other. Sure, the skill set is still crucial, but the intangibles of key players – scoring knack, will to win and experience – are the things that allow teams to hoist the hardware.
Between Duluth Denfeld forward Levi Talarico and goaltender Zach Thompson, the Hunters don’t have to search very hard to find those less measurable possessions.
Talarico and Thompson, both juniors, have been in their fair share of section tournaments. It’s not surprising, then, that they were Duluth Denfeld’s best players in a 5-1 section 7A quarterfinal win over Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl on Thurdsay, Feb. 23, at the Heritage Sports Center in Duluth.
Thompson, who finished with 30 saves between the pipes, was his best when the Blue Devils were pressuring to erase a two-goal Hunters’ lead during a furious second-period charge.
According to Thompson, that isn’t necessarily something he would have been able to do in the past.
“My first year [in sections] I had bad butterflies, and it’s just getting easier and easier to realize what the game is and how hard it’s going to be,” Thompson said. “My first year I didn’t really know what I had to do to come out and play well. I’ve learned things and figured out what goes good and what goes bad.”
That composure is something that head coach Kevin Smalley notices, too.
“He’s been around for a while, he’s pretty poised back there, he’s not afraid to handle the puck, and those are the kind of guys you want to go with right now,” Smalley said. “He’s got veteran leadership, and he knows what his job is back there. He’s a good goaltender.”
Fittingly, it was Thompson’s superb play that set the stage for Talarico to take the game over.
After making a big save just a minute after the Blue Devils had cut the lead to 2-1 in the middle frame, the Hunters chipped a puck out to center. Talarico swooped in, picked up the loose puck and beat Virginia goalie Lucas Murray glove-side to give Duluth Denfeld another two-goal lead.
Following another big Thompson save early in the third, Talarico’s pass sent teammate Nick Forbort in on a breakaway. Even though Forbort was stuffed on his try, Talarico skated up into the play, found the rebound and put the game out of reach with a roof shot.
As Talarico puts it, none of that is possible without Thompson.
“[The way Thompson plays] is a good source of confidence for us,” said Talarico. “If our forwards and defensemen are starting to fall apart, he’s usually there. He gets us going in the locker room, he’s got our back and we’ve got his.”
Thompson and Talarico will get another chance to display their playoff prowess on Saturday afternoon against top-seed Duluth Marshall in Hibbing.
Duluth Denfeld goalie Zach Thompson (35) plays the puck against Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl on Thursday, Feb. 23 in the 7A quarterfinals. Photos by Dave Harwig, ViewThroughMyLens.net
Duluth Denfeld knows that the best way to prepare for the playoffs is to play a loaded schedule down the stretch in the regular season.
This year, that’s exactly what happened.
Between Jan. 27 and the final game of the regular season, the Hunters played games against some of Minnesota’s best – Thief River Falls, Warroad, Duluth Marshall, Hermantown, Duluth East and Grand Rapids.
Although they went 0-5-1 against those teams, Duluth Denfeld feels as though it will pay dividends in the 7A tournament.
“A lot of people look at our record and say, ‘They didn’t have a very good year’,” head coach Kevin Smalley said. “If the kids keep working hard and we get the bounces of the puck and the breaks, we can certainly scare some teams [in the playoffs].”
The fourth-seeded Hunters will get their first shot at an upset on Saturday when they play in-town rival and top-seeded Duluth Marshall in Hibbing. But, having just lost to the Hilltoppers 6-0 on Feb. 2, the task in front of Duluth Denfeld seems like a daunting one.
“How do you prepare for a team that beat you 6-0? I think I’ll leave [the preparation] up to my players,” joked Smalley following the Hunters’ 5-1 win over Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl in Thursday’s 7A quarterfinal.
According to junior leader Levi Talarico, the key is doing the exact opposite of what the Hunters did last time.
“We have to play a completely different game than we did in the first game,” Talarico said. “We can’t lay down for them; all 20 guys have to be going. Some of us guys know what it’s like to play in the playoffs, and you just kind of expect that no team is going to lay down.”
Goaltender Zach Thompson agrees that winning in the playoffs is about effort, something that Duluth Denfeld learned about during its wicked stretch of games.
“We just have to keep working hard, just bring our game,” said Thompson. “[The tough schedule] was a good builder for us to see what we have to do in the playoffs. You play good teams in the playoffs, so you might as well play them in the regular season, too.”
Part of the equation to shutting down Duluth Marshall is stopping high-scoring forward Judd Peterson, a Mr. Hockey finalist who is committed to play his college hockey at St. Cloud State.
With the way Thompson says his defense is playing right now, the Hunters believe they can challenge the Hilltoppers.
“I think the guys are keeping other teams to the outside nicely, they aren’t really getting shots from in close, and I’m really seeing [the puck],” Thompson said.
Duluth Denfeld's Alex Thompson (12) watches the puck slide over the line as he flies through the air against Virginia on Thursday night. Photos by Dave Harwig, ViewThroughMyLens.net
Duluth Denfeld’s Levi Talarico scored three straight goals between the second and third periods, while goaltender Zach Thompson stopped 30 shots to help the fourth-seeded Hunters down No. 5-seed Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl in the quarterfinals of the Section 7A tournament on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Heritage Sports Center in Duluth.
Talarico’s goals couldn’t have come at a better time – especially the first one – as the Blue Devils were pushing to cut into a 2-0 lead Duluth Denfeld had built on Alex and Nick Thompson first-period goals.
After Nick Blaeser batted home a rebound at the top of the crease to pull Virginia within a goal 12 minutes, 45 seconds into the second, Talarico took a chip pass off the glass, scooted in on goalie Lucas Murray and found a spot over his glove to give the Hunters another cushion.
Then, just 6 minutes, 15 seconds into the third, Talarico followed a Nick Forbort breakaway bid to the net, gathered a loose puck to the left of Murray and shelfed it to break the game open.
He added a power-play marker late in the game to complete the hat trick.
Equally as impressive was Duluth Denfeld net minder Zach Thompson, who made 14 of his 30 saves in the second period when the Blue Devils were buzzing.
Thompson was also credited with an assist on Talarico’s first goal.
Forbort, Travis Samuelson, Ben Campbell and Bill Grillo all had single assists for Duluth Denfeld, which advances to play in-town rival and top-seed Duluth Marshall on Saturday afternoon in Hibbing.
Tom Ostergaard and Travis Kemp had the helpers on the lone Virginia goal, and Murray finished with 23 saves.
Virginia finishes its season with a 12-13-1 record.
1. Levi Talarico, Duluth Denfeld
The experienced junior picked a perfect time to start his offensive onslaught, scoring his first goal just a minute after Virginia had cut the Duluth Denfeld lead in half midway through the middle frame. Then, Talarico made a great play to bury an early third-period goal to put the game away, and finished off the hat trick with a power-play marker late in the game.
2. Zach Thompson, Duluth Denfeld
Another junior with plenty of section playoff experience is Thompson, who was spectacular between the pipes for the Hunters when they needed him most. He stopped 30 shots on the night – 14 of which came in the second periods – and added an assist for good measure.
3. Ben Campbell, Duluth Denfeld
The senior blue-liner ate up tons of minutes, and he was good from start to finish. Campbell had an assist in the game, but was most impactful in the other aspects of the game. He locked down his own end, got pucks up the ice quickly and displayed confidence at the point that rubbed off on his Denfeld teammates.
Virginia's Nick Blaeser (9) pounds home a rebound goal in the second period. Photos by Dave Harwig, ViewThroughMyLens.net