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Cloquet/Esko/Carlton's James Newgren (15) deflects a shot towards Grand Rapids goalie Hunter Shepard during Thursday's game in Cloquet. Photos by Dave Harwig, ViewThroughMyLens.net

Hockey coaches typically speak within the confines of a certain lexicon, one that doesn’t often deviate from coach to coach or game to game. Wins come with praise, losses come with disappointment and ties exert some combination of the two.

That all depends on the situation.

The situation for Cloquet/Esko/Carlton coach Dave Esse after his team’s come from behind 2-2 tie against visiting Grand Rapids on Thursday, Jan. 3 was a mixed bag of sorts.

On one hand, Esse was pleased with the Lumberjacks and their ability to rally and knot the score late in the third period. On the other, Esse was ashamed with his team’s effort in its own end.

“It was good to get a tie, but I’m not very happy in the way we played,” Esse said. “It was our best comeback, but it was our worst defensive hockey of the whole year. If we tie and play well its one thing, but we had so many unforced turnovers in our end and we were running around like chickens.”

The reason for Esse’s frustration stemmed largely from the play of the Lumberjacks against Grand Rapids forward Avery Peterson and linemates Reid Holum and Cody Mann.

Peterson netted both of the Thunderhawk goals, and the line established several lengthy cycles throughout the contest.

Esse was particularly upset with the first goal Grand Rapids scored, one where Peterson grabbed a puck along the wall by the blue line, spun around a Cloquet defender and worked his way to the slot before firing a shot under goalie Zack Strom’s blocker.

“The first goal they score we’ve got guys flopping down off the hashmarks, we have chances to get the puck out of the zone and don’t… we just didn’t make the simple plays,” Essie said. “Give [Grand Rapids] credit, too. That’s a very good line. But it was embarrassing. We played like the circus on skates. From our forwards to our defensemen, we just ran around like clowns. I was so disappointed in the play defensively.”

All is not lost, though, as Cloquet knows it can mend the defensive breakdowns it suffered on Thursday before the games change to the “win or go home” variety.

“Our defense broke down a few times tonight, but it’s just simple stuff we need to work on,” Strom said. “We’ll work on that in practice.”

Esse agreed.

“Its just one game, and we’re playing for the end of the year,” he said.

Grand Rapids looks for consistency

Grand Rapids has admittedly struggled with consistency all year long. Wins against Elk River and White Bear Lake are impressive, but losses to Forest Lake and St. Francis are head scratchers.

That inconsistency is often seen from shift-to-shift and period-to-period during particular games, too, and that was the case on Thursday night in Cloquet.

After a poor start and a dive into an early 1-0 hole, the Thunderhawks rallied to pull ahead and stayed out front until the final 90 seconds of regulation, when the Lumberjacks tied the score and forced overtime before the contest ended in a 2-2 draw.

Head coach Bruce LaRoque expected a tight battle, but the outcome wasn’t what he had in mind, especially with the 7AA implications riding on the game.

“It was a typical Cloquet-Grand Rapids game,” LaRoque said. “We’re not happy to get a tie, but it’s certainly better than a loss on the road. It was tight game right down to the wire.”

Now, after Grand Rapids struggled late in the game to generate any sustained attack or continuity on the ice, LaRoque is left to ponder what it will take to get the Thunderhawks clicking on all cylinders.

“We have yet to put together a game where we’ve played three straight good 17-minute periods,” LaRoque said. “We’ve got to work hard for however long the game is. Hopefully, once we do that, we’ll be a very sound team.”

With a rematch with Cloquet and contests against Hermantown, Duluth East and Benilde-St. Margaret’s still to come, Grand Rapids will have plenty of opportunities to mold its stability on the fly.

“The schedule doesn’t get any easier,” LaRoque said. “We have to go on the road and then have [Cloquet] back in our building. We hope to be hitting stride by playoff time.”

Q&A with Cloquet goalie Zack Strom

Hockey Hub: Coach Esse wasn’t happy with the overall defensive effort tonight, but he was very pleased with how you played in goal. Talk about your game tonight.

Strom: I thought I played solid and played angles well. The two goals were nice plays by them. I was nervous just to start a game like this, and we had so many chances and couldn’t always capitalize. Finally at the end we did, and the section games are always important.

Hockey Hub: You’ve been playing more and more and your numbers would show that you’re pretty confident between the pipes. How are you feeling out there?

Strom: I’m feeling really confident. It’s just lately that I’ve been starting, and I feel solid. The guys help with that, too.

Hockey Hub: There seems to be a pretty good goalie battle brewing between you and Justin Ketola. What’s that been like for you guys?

Strom: Yeah, it’s definitely bringing out the best in us. We try so hard in practice and we just have to beat each other. I’ve grown up with him since squirts and we’ve always been goalie buddies. It’s just been a battle ever since.

Statistics, Summary

Game Recap

Section 7AA rivals Grand Rapids and Cloquet battled to a 2-2 tie on Thursday, Jan. 3 at the Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.

After the Thunderhawks’ Avery Peterson scored twice to give Grand Rapids a 2-1 lead, the Lumberjacks were able to knot it up late on a seeing-eye Drew Dincau shot from the point with just 90 seconds remaining in regulation.

Hunter Shepard stopped 40 shots for the Thunderhawks, while counterpart Zack Strom turned away 25 for Cloquet.

James Newgren scored the other CEC goal, and Karson Kuhlman led all Lumberjacks in points with a pair of assists.

Cody Mann was the only other Thunderhawk to record a point.

Cloquet (8-4-1) and Grand Rapids (8-3-2) will meet in a rematch on Jan. 15 at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids.

1. Hunter Shepard, Grand Rapids
After yielding an early goal on only the third shot of the game, Shepard settled in and played his style to near perfection – he made athletic saves, directed pucks away from danger and flashed his glove all game long. Shepard finished with 40 stops on the night.

2. Zack Strom, Cloquet/Esko/Carlton
Strom, who has been getting the nod between the pipes more often recently, was on his game when the Lumberjacks needed it most. Strom made several gigantic saves on the Thunderhawks’ stud players to set the stage for Cloquet’s comeback effort late in the third period, and ended with 25 saves.

3. Avery Peterson, Grand Rapids
People sit on the edge of their seats when Peterson touches the puck, and he proved worthy of that admiration on Thursday night. Peterson scored both Grand Rapids goals, with each coming on ridiculous plays created and finished by the crafty junior forward.

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