It's not often that the sixth game of the season in mid December is considered one of the biggest games of the season.
However, for a team that is looking to turn a program around and facing expectations as high as they have been in decades, Mounds View had the proverbial circle around its game Thursday against White Bear Lake.
Since 2005, Mounds View has only beaten the Bears twice and have yet to do so at White Bear Lake's newest home, the Vadnais Sports Center.
If the Mustangs are to be taken serious in the Suburban East Conference, beating White Bear Lake was a requirement. Doing so on the road would be that much more impressive.
In a penalty filled conclusion, Mounds View's A.J. Rupert scored 1 minute, 25 seconds into overtime on the power play to give the Mustangs a 6-5 win against White Bear Lake on Dec. 13 at the Vadnais Sports Center.
"I've scored some big goals, including a game winner this year, but this might be the biggest goal of my career," Rupert said. "This is pretty cool, because it's against White Bear Lake."
Twice, Mounds View had what appeared to be comfortable two goal leads.
Each time those slipped away and a familiar result was nearing.
Not this time though.
If being able to hold off the Bears' third period surge was difficult enough, Mounds View had to do it while shorthanded for a majority of the period.
The Mustangs amassed 12 penalty minutes in the third, which including a 5-minute checking from behind major.
The Mustangs were down two players for a total of 2 minutes, 33 seconds.
"That was a pretty crazy stretch right there," Mustangs coach Rick Thomas said. "I think in the past, we may not have handled that well, but we have a lot of experience now and guys that have played in some big games like this before, so they handled the situation really well."
Mounds View only allowed one goal in that span, Peter Wachtler's with just over 4 minutes to play in the third.
With 33 seconds left in the third, White Bear Lakes' Alex Bocchi was called for tripping and the Mustangs were able to set up their potent power play.
That carried over into the third, and Rupert was able to bury a wrist shot from the point, which was able to find the back of the net through traffic and send euphoria through the Mustangs' bench.
"It was like 'finally'," Thomas said. "There were times in the third when it wasn't looking that way and I was wondering when we were going to get a chance with all the penalties that we had, but when A.J.'s shot went in, I know I was excited and probably relieved at the same time."
One Bears player in particular made life tough on Mounds View.
Jake Wahlin scored three goals, his final coming on the power play in the third period that tied the game at 5 with 5 minutes, 52 seconds left in the third.
Hats littered the ice and momentum appeared to be all on White Bear Lake's side.
"He was just a one-man wrecking crew out there," Thomas said. "He has always been like that and is a fantastic player."
"After we tied the game, we were feeling pretty good," Wahlin said. "I thought we were going to pull it out, but we didn't and we just have to learn to bounce back from this one."
While White Bear Lake relied heavily on Wahlin, Mounds View had six different goal scorers.
Rupert's overtime goal of course, Tucker Gran and Andrew Bjorklund in the first, Jacob Tretsven and Darian Romanko in the second and Ryan Elvidge in the third.
"All of our lines were good," Romanko said. "You need that in a big game like this. At the end, we were getting pretty tired, but we had all of lines playing pretty well, so that definitely helped us out."
It is early, but Mounds View holds the top spot in the Suburban East.
That may not be a big deal to most teams at this point in the season, but where the Mustangs have come in such a short period of time, this is a big deal.
"We didn't want to stress how important this game was to the kids beforehand, but as coaches we talked a lot about this game," Thomas said. "First, our kids haven't had a lot of success here in this new rink. I think we got drilled a few times here, so to get a win here for the first time is huge. Second, that is a great team over there that is going to get better and we needed this win because they will be there right at the end for the conference lead. This is a big, big win for us moving forward."
Mounds View and White Bear Lake will play each other at least one more time this season on Jan. 26, which could be another key game in the Suburan East race.
Romanko said he knows that one could be just as imperative as the last.
"It's going to be a huge game," he said. "We just beat them at their place, so they will be ready to go and we will have to be, too."
One of the old cliches in hockey is a two-goal lead is the most dangerous one to protect.
A team can become complacent and lose its drive with a two-goal lead.
If it's lost, momentum can change so quickly that regaining it nearly impossible to achieve.
Mounds View had two, two-goal leads against White Bear Lake, but the defending Suburban East champions would not go away.
The Bears battled back to tie the game both times but were unable to get the go-ahead goal.
This year's Mustangs have experience on their side to handle momentum shifts like the ones on Thursday.
"We have 14 seniors that know how to handle games like this," Rupert said. "There haven't been too many things that our seniors have not experienced, so we were ready for anything."
"I think our kids handled the situation better than our coaches did," Thomas said. "I know I was pretty excited and my emotions were going everywhere. It was just neat to see our players handle that situation so well."
A.J. Rupert scored 1 minute, 25 seconds into overtime to give Mounds View a 6-5 win against White Bear Lake on Thursday, Dec. 13 at the Vadnais Sports Center.
White Bear Lake was led by Jake Wahlin, who scored three goals for the hat trick. His final goal came in the third period on the power play, which tied the game at 5.
Mounds View had six goal scorers.
Tucker Gran opened the scoring when he intercepted a pass in front of the Bears' net and slid a nice shot past goalie Michael St. Martin.
Wahlin scored his first to tie the game, but Andre Bjorklund came back with one of his own just over two minutes later.
Jacob Tretsven gave Mounds View a 3-1 lead early in the second, but Wahlin pulled the Bears within one with his second of the game.
White Bear Lake tied the game when Peter Wachtler scored from a sharp angle on the power play.
With 33 seconds left in the second, Darian Romanko buried a one-timer from the slot after a beautiful drop pass from Bjorklund to give the Mustangs a 4-3 lead heading into the third period.
Early in the third, Ryan Elvidge put Mounds View up 5-3, but the lead was short-lived as White Bear Lake started to make its comeback.
Tommy Giller scored less than a minute later to make it 5-4 and Wahlin netted his third for the hat trick to tie it up.
Rupert scored his fourth goal of the season in overtime to give the Mustangs in third conference win of the year.
Mounds View goalie Brandon Smith faced 28 shots and made 23 saves for the win, while his counterpart in net, Michael St. Martin finished with 20 saves.
With the win Mounds View improves to 4-1-1. The Mustangs will take on East Ridge on Saturday, Dec. 15 in Mounds View.
White Bear Lake drops to 2-2-1 and will host Cretin-Derham Hall on Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Vadnais Sports Center.
1. Jake Wahlin, White Bear Lake
An easy choice for the top star, even in defeat. Wahlin scored three times and chances for a few more. Every time he touched the puck, good things happened for the Bears. Mounds View coach Rick Thomas described him as a one-man wrecking crew.