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Chance of an upset

By Star Tribune and MN Hockey Hub staff, 03/08/12, 4:00PM CST

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Behind Michael 'Chance' Bitzer's 34-save shutout, Moorhead upends No. 3 seed Eagan


Moorhead senior goaltender Michael Bitzer made 34 saves in the Spuds' 4-0 victory over Eagan in the state Class 2A quarterfinals. Photo by Helen Nelson

Superb goaltending aside, Moorhead hardly budges the needle when it comes to producing a wow factor.
 
The Spuds are a collection of counterpunchers, tomato cans, blue-collar muckers and grinders.
 
Do the adjectives fit?
 
“I don’t care what they call us, as long as we’re winning games,” said Michael Bitzer, Moorhead’s senior goaltender.

Moorhead celebrates a goal in its 4-0 state Class 2A quarterfinal victory over Eagan. Photo by Helen Nelson

Division I recruits? Not even Bitzer, widely regarded as the state’s top goalie, has locked down a scholarship. Like many previous versions of the Spuds, this is mostly a nameless, faceless band that wins playing hockey’s version of the rope-a-dope.
 
“They’re going to pinch you off, they’re going to keep good gaps in the neutral zone,” Eagan coach Mike Taylor said after his No. 3-seeded and No. 5-ranked Wildcats (24-4-1) were upended by Moorhead (22-6-0) 4-0 in the quarterfinals of the state Class 2A tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Eagan features four Division 1 college prospects, two of whom are Mr. Hockey finalists in Michael Zajac and Will Merchant. “Then they’re gonna pack it in and play great D in front of them. 
 
“I mean, I would, I think (Moorhead coach Dave Morinville) is pretty smart to do that.”
 
If all that sounds boring, well, it can be. Moorhead routinely finds itself on the short end of shot counts but, as if by magic, usually has the higher of the most important numbers.
 
“I don't care if it's 100 to 14 if we win it, what does it matter?” Morinville said about the shots on goal total Thursday, which Eagan “won” 34-19. “The bottom line is you got to score goals, and you got to get tough in the trenches. We boxed out pretty well and our D did a good job.”
 
That suffocating style can work especially well on the big stage. When grips on the sticks tighten, and converting even the most routine of scoring chances can be a tricky proposition.
 
Moorhead has had this sort of surprising quarterfinals success before, most recently four years ago when the Spuds knocked off a heavily favored Edina team loaded with future Division I players such as Anders Lee and Marshall Everson. Moorhead reached the title game that year, losing to Eden Prairie.
 
“Four years ago, and tonight, in both games we started out strong and played a great game to the end,” said Bitzer, who was a freshman backing up Logan Marks that season. “You know, four years ago, we might have got outshot, tonight we got outshot, but in both these situations we played great defense.”
 
Morinville, himself an old goaltender, never stops preaching defense. With every incoming crop of Spuds he “preaches to the choir.” That’s his way of saying that nothing good can happen without due diligence in the defensive zone.
 
“We grind it out,” said Logan Ness, who scored twice against the Wildcats. “If we’re physical and our passing is OK … we harp on the defensive zone the most, so if that’s going good, our offense will go good to.”
 
These Spuds seem to enjoy the grind. Any style is fun, after all, when you are winning.
 
“Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities with this group,” Morinville said when asked about his 2009 runner-up squad. “Talk to me on Sunday, and I’ll let you know for sure.”
 
-- Loren Nelson, MN Hockey Hub editor

Moorhead's Bitzer speaks softly, makes loud statement

Michael Bitzer had the kind of day when you find a withered twenty in the dryer, hit all the green lights on the commute and get the front row spot at the grocery store.

The Moorhead goaltender stopped all 34 shots Eagan players fired at him Thursday in the Spuds’ 4-0 Class 2A quarterfinal upset victory over the No. 3 seed Wildcats.

“The “D” played really well in front of me and made it easy for me all night long,” said Bitzer, whom coach Dave Morinville called one of the shyest players on the team.

The goalie let his play do the talking. 


Michael Bitzer

Asked to describe a breakaway stop on Wildcats’ leading scorer Nick Kuchera to preserve a 0-0 tie midway through the second period, Bitzer said, “I just tried to come out and give myself a chance and luckily it landed between my pads.”

Morinville sat back and enjoyed the show.

“We’ve seen it since he was in ninth grade on,” he said of the Frank Brimsek award finalist, given annually to the top senior goaltender in the state.

When he was a tad off, bounces still went his way. Late in the third, the puck hopped from behind the net into the goal mouth crease, where two Wildcats players stood ready to pounce.

Eagan still couldn’t score.

“We were snake bit,” Wildcats coach Mike Taylor said. “I thought we put some pretty good shots on net, had some good looks but couldn’t crack it.”

Moorhead scored first 9:29 into the second when Jesse Doschadis mopped up a wrap-around chance by Cody Rahman. Logan Ness then scored a pair of goals 4:36 apart and assisted on the last goal with 4:25 to play. 

-- Brian Stensaas, Star Tribune staff writer

Moorhead's Ness scores in the clutch


Logan Ness (26) scores his second of the game to lead Moorhead to a 4-0 victory over Eagan in the Class AA quarterfinals. Photo by Helen Nelson.

The term ‘closer’ is usually a title reserved for baseball or basketball players. In hoops, the closer is the type of person that hits the big shot or finishes the dagger to seal the game, a la Kobe Bryant of the Lakers.

In Moorhead’s 4-0 shutout of second-seeded Maple Grove, senior forward Logan Ness put on his own Kobe-esque performance.

Nobody would have been able to tell the difference.

Midway through the second period, the Spuds were up by one and the game was still in question. On the power play, Ness was fed the puck low in the zone between the bottom of the circles and the goal line, at a bad angle facing goaltender Christian Butler.

No matter, as Ness picked a spot and fired a wrist-shot past Butler. 

That was the big shot.

Later in the third, Ness was free in the neutral zone and caught a pass, skating in untouched on a breakaway. He casually ripped a shot low and into the nylon to put the Spuds up by three and send their fans into frenzy.

That was the dagger.

“My hands aren’t the best I don’t think when I’m on breakaways so I always just shoot,” Ness said after the game. “When we do shootouts in practice against Bitzer I always shoot above the pads and that’s where I shot it today. So it worked out.

“[Assistant coach Josh Arnold] always harps on me, he goes, ‘The net doesn’t move,’ so I’ve been working on that all year, making sure I hit the net more often. Last year I would miss the net a lot, once I figured it out I started scoring a lot more”

In general, the Spuds had more success capitalizing on opportunities than the high-powered Eagan offense.

The Wildcats outshot Moorhead, 34-21. Moorhead finished ahead on the scoreboard, 4-0.

Eagan’s Will Will Merchant missed a wide-open net on a two-on-one opportunity, and Nick Kuchera was stopped on a breakaway. Moorhead scored twice on the power play.

“Puck luck,” Eagan coach Mike Taylor said. “Hockey can be a fickle game. You have a goal scorer who scored as many goals for us as Will Merchant and the puck just hops at the last minute and he doesn’t get on it. You get a breakaway from our leading point-getter and a good finisher in Nicky Kuchera and Bitzer gets it down low and he’s able to hang onto it.”

Ness noted that the ability to finish has been a theme for the Spuds all season.

“We capitalize when we can,” Ness said.

-- Walker Orenstein, MN Hockey Hub staff

Once (snake)-bitten, twice shy


Eagan's Derick Kuchera (4) absorbs a check in the Wildcats' 4-0 loss to Moorhead. Photo by Helen Nelson.

Down a goal in the third period doesn’t seem so bad.
 
Especially not if you’re Eagan. 
 
“It’s happened to us before. It’s happened to us a couple times this year. We’ve been able to score goals in bunches,” said head coach Mike Taylor. “[Against Park-Cottage Grove] we were losing halfway through the second there and wound up winning 7-1. I don’t think we panicked at all.” 
 
But after Logan Ness scored 6 minutes, 9 seconds into the final period to help Moorhead build a two-goal, everything changed. 
 
“I thought when they got their second goal, we kind of had to adjust,” Taylor said. “We had to open it up a little more than we’re used to. We started pressing. Actually sometimes when you press, you get less than what you had in the first place. That’s when I thought we were in trouble.”
 
Taylor nailed it. 
 
Once the Spuds boosted their lead to 2-0, third-seeded Eagan got more aggressive, took bigger risks and ended up dropping a 4-0 decision to unseeded Moorhead on Thursday, March 8, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. 
 
The Wildcats did their best to stay focused and shy away from frustration as time ticked on, but Moorhead goalie Michael Bitzer single-handedly gave the entire city of Eagan one big collective headache.
 
Bitzer finished with 34 saves and the shutout. 
 
Eagan finished with a trip to Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis on its schedule.
 
“I think we were snake bit,” Taylor said. “Hockey can be a fickle game.”
 

-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub

Not the average Spud

Throughout his four year varsity career, Moorhead goalie Michael Bitzer has turned heads with his play in the crease.

More often than not for his opponents, those heads are left hanging down.

It may be hard to believe that Bitzer's performance a year ago would be classified as "average" by Spuds coach Dave Morinville, but that is where he said his goalie's game was at.

This season, much to the delight of his coach, Bitzer has somehow escalated his already stellar high school career to another level.

"I think that I am most happy with Bitzer is that last year, and I think he would agree, he was kind of average.," Morinville said. "This year it is good to see what he is doing right now. He deserves it and has worked hard for us."

In the Class 2A tournament, Bitzer shined again with 34 saves in the Spuds 4-0 victory over Eagan and advance to play Hill-Murray in the semifinals.

Making up for the 2011 state quarterfinal loss, Bitzner got stronger as the game progressed.

After a first period where he saw eight shots and quality chances, Bitzner came through with 16 in the second, which included a breakaway stop on Eagan forward Nick Kuchera.

"As the game went on, you could see his confidence grow and you could see their frustration grow," Morinville said. "That was the biggest difference I think."

Another big difference was the shot totals between Moorhead and Eagan.

While the Wildcats unleashed 34, Moorhead was only able to muster 15.

As long as the Spuds are on the winning end of the scoreboard, Morinville is fine with the shot totals, because he said Bitzer is able to carry the load.

"As an old goalie, I would like to see a lot shots to get in the groove," Morinville said "Obviously, I think he (Bitzer) can take a ton.

"It keeps him in the game and he knows that he has to be on."

"I like facing a lot of shots, especially when the defense keeps them to the outside," Bitzer said. "I faced a lot today, but as the game went on, there wasn't as many high quality chances."

In the three-day tournament, there is no position that has more of an impact in a game than the goalie.

Through four postseason games Bitzer has only allowed two goals and has shown no signs of giving in.

"Bitzer's hot and has been hot all year," Morinville said. "He's had a great year for us and this is just an exclamation point that is well deserved."

-- Justin Magill, MN Hockey Hub Staff

Statistics, Summary

Game recap

Last year, Michael Bitzer hoped the entire state would be buzzing about his goaltending at the state tournament. But his weekend was awfully quiet as Moorhead went two-and-out, including a shutout loss to Eagan.

He better be ready for the buzz now.

Bitzer stopped all 34 shots as the unseeded Spuds (22-6-0) shocked third-seeded and No. 4-ranked Eagan (24-4-1) 4-0 in a quarterfinal rematch Thursday, March 8 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Frank Brimsek Award finalist was impenetrable, swallowing up pucks and not spitting them back out.

As its scoreless game continued, Eagan's frustration mounted. The Wildcats outshot Moorhead in the first two periods -- 8-4 in the first and 16-5 in the second -- but couldn't solve Bitzer.

Jesse Doschadis finally got the Spuds on the board with a rebound goal at 9 minutes, 29 seconds of the second. Logan Ness scored twice in the third period, including a breakaway wrister that broke the Wildcats' will midway through the final stanza. Bryant Christian added a late power play goal.

Christian Butler finished with 15 saves for Eagan, which will play No. 2 Maple Grove in the Class AA consolation semifinals. Moorhead plays unseeded Hill-Murray in the championship semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday, March 9 at the Xcel Energy Center.

-- Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA

1. Michael Bitzer, Moorhead
Stand-on-his-head 'tender. Brick wall. Unsolvable riddle. Bitzer was certainly worthy of all acclamations after a 34-save shutout of third-seeded Eagan in the Class 2A quarterfinals. He started well, making eight saves in the first period, and just got better from there for the Spuds, who were outshot 34-19.

2. Logan Ness, Moorhead
Ness broke open a tight game with back-to-back goals midway through the third period. First, the senior slipped in a power play goal at 6 minutes, 9 seconds to give Moorhead a 2-0 lead. Then he sniped low glove side on a breakaway rush with just 6 minutes, 15 seconds remaining to give the Spuds a three-goal edge.

3. Jesse Doschadis, Moorhead
The Spuds started to believe in the upset after Doschadis opened the scoring in the second period. With linemates Cody Rahman and Zach Quaife forcing the puck on net, Doschadis cruised in on the back side of the play and tucked the loose puck behind Wildcats' goalie Christian Butler. His backward sliding celly only capped the excitement.

-- Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA

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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