Moorhead's Aaron Herdt (8) sweeps past Brainerd goaltender Kyle Helmberger, but is stymied by backchecking Warriors' defenseman Jed Rusk (20). Photos by Tim Kolehmainen.
Tony Uglem was all business, at least until he was reminded that his Moorhead team was headed back to the state tournament for the third straight season. Then his eyes lit up and his grin threatened to split his face in two.
"It never gets old," said Uglem, shaking his head happily. "It never gets old.
"It's great every year."
Uglem's game-winning goal certainly brought that same smile to the rest of the Spuds -- and the fans who trekked down to the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud Wednesday night, Feb. 27. The senior leader of the Spuds broke a scoreless tie with 11:51 to play, leading top-seeded Moorhead (14-11-2) past second-seeded Brainerd (21-6-0) in a tight-checking 2-0 Section 8AA final.
"It doesn't get old playing in section finals and getting to the X," agreed Moorhead coach Pete Cullen, who brought the Spuds to the section final for the 16th straight season -- but his first as head coach. Cullen took over after longtime coach Dave Morinville stepped down in the offseason, but kept the winning tradition going at his alma mater.
"It's a great feeling always," said Cullen.
For nearly 40 minutes, the Spuds' spot in the state tournament was in serious doubt, as was whether either team would even score.
Both teams were generating scoring chances, but both goaltenders -- Moorhead sophomore Jacob Dittmer and Brainerd senior Kyle Helmberger -- were stopping everything thrown at them. There were some helping hands, such as when Uglem rang one off the post in the first period, but those were few and far between.
"There have been so many guys that have put it off the post, I don't know who's who anymore," joked Cullen after the game. "If there was a state tournament for hitting posts, I think we'd win."
Moorhead will have to settle for heading to the actual state tournament instead -- thanks to Uglem.
The Spuds finally got their reprieve when Brainerd's Reno Fussy was sent off for an inadvertent high-sticking penalty 4:13 into the third. Junior Aaron Herdt fed the puck back to Uglem at the blue line and his rising shot slid over Helmberger's shoulder for the only goal the Spuds needed.
Uglem dropped to a knee in celebration before being swarmed over by Herdt and the rest of the power play unit.
"We finally got through," said Uglem. "We were getting a lot of chances and we were finally able to put one in the back of the net. We knew we were eventually going to break through."
It's fitting that it came off the stick of Uglem and on the power play. Since Cullen moved the senior forward to the point on special teams, the Spuds' power play has been clicking. Uglem has a team-best 20 goals on the season (tied with Herdt and Thomas Carey), including seven on the power play. After scoring four power play goals during the regular season, Uglem has three in three section victories.
"We were trying to figure out what our identity was on our power play," said Cullen. "We finally said, 'hey, you're our senior captain and leader here. It's in your hands to conduct this.'
"He finished it off tonight."
Yet as big as Uglem's goal was, Cullen also wanted to celebrate the contributions of a couple of lesser-known Spuds who drew third-period penalties to get the power play on track. Tucker Masseth enticed Brainerd's Jed Rusk into a slashing penalty early in the third that helped jump start the power play, then Leif Johnson hustled on the back check and took a high-stick to the head that set up the winning power play.
"He's the hero," said Cullen of Johnson's hustle play. "He's the one we're honoring tonight."
It shows how fine the line has been in the rivalry.
As in most recent Moorhead versus Brainerd tilts, the game was tight and low-scoring. Also like most, the Spuds came out on top. It was the second consecutive year Moorhead beat the Warriors in the section final and pushed its record over Brainerd to 15-1-1 in the last 17 meetings since 2006. In those 17 games, the Warriors have averaged just under two goals per game.
It took an empty netter from Herdt in the closing seconds to even get to two combined goals Wednesday night.
"The teams obviously want it a lot and they're going to all block shots and tighten up defensively," said Uglem. "(I knew) it was going to be a low-scoring game."
"They play a very good team game," said Cullen of the Warriors under coach Jim Archibald. "They have a lot of guys that fight for each other. They know their role and they play to it. And they just try and do everything for our team.
"That said, we knew what our game had to be, which was to push the pace, use the extra space here in St. Cloud and get to the outside."
Tony Uglem (10) and the Spuds celebrate his game-winning goal five minutes into the third period.
There may have been a sense of deja vu for Brainerd players and fans as they watched another black-and-orange, No. 33-clad Moorhead goaltender shut them out in a big game. After enduring four years of All-Stater Michael Bitzer shutting the door on their state tournament hopes, the Warriors sure suffered at the hands of his replacement, sophomore goaltender Jacob Dittmer.
Other than about 5 inches of height in Dittmer's favor, Brainerd may have been questioning if it was Bitzer still in goal in the Section 8AA final Wednesday night. But nope, that was definitely Dittmer stopping all 26 shots in a 2-0 Spuds' victory.
"I knew I had to try and fill his shoes," said Dittmer of the record-setting Spuds' goalie. "I'm not sure if I ever will, but I try my best to emulate what he did out there."
Count his first attempt a success.
Since taking over full-time duties over the holidays, Dittmer has been solid in goal. He's 11-6-2 overall with a 2.52 goals against average and .909 save percentage. In three playoff games, he's been even better, allowing just three total goals on 60 shots. As the heat has turned up, Dittmer has hardened.
"The pressure was up there and it was real intense," said Dittmer, who admitted to nerves before the game.
Senior Tony Uglem scored on the power play at 5:09 of the third period to break a scoreless tie and send top-seeded Moorhead back to the Class 2A state tournament for the third consecutive season. The Spuds (14-11-2) defeated No. 2 Brainerd (21-6-0) in the Section 8A final for the second year in a row, 2-0 Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
The two teams battled to a draw for almost 40 minutes before Uglem's rising slap shot from the point eluded Brainerd goaltender Kyle Helmberger. Junior Aaron Herdt set up Uglem's game-winner and added an empty-netter in the final seconds for the final margin.
Helmberger was impenetrable for much of the game, making 32 saves on 33 shots. Sophomore Jacob Dittmer matched him zero for zero, stopping all 26 shots he faced.
1. Tony Uglem, Moorhead
The Spuds' leading scorer picked a great time to notch his 20th goal of the season. With 11:51 remaining in a scoreless duel, Uglem's rising shot from the blue line on the power play found the back of the net. It was the only goal the Spuds needed, but Uglem added an assist on Aaron Herdt's empty-netter in the final seconds. With his size and long reach, Uglem was tough to knock off the puck all game long.
2. Aaron Herdt, Moorhead
Moorhead used its speed and quickness to advantage all game long, but perhaps no one more so than Herdt. The junior forward was a consistent threat with the puck on his stick and capped the game with an empty-net goal (seconds after he was tagged for offsides on Thomas Carey's empty-net chance). He did take a few penalties out of frustration, but his offensive prowess was more than compensatory.
3. (tie) Kyle Helmberger, Brainerd and Jacob Dittmer, Moorhead
Both goaltenders came up huge in the section final, combining to make 58 saves on the 59 shots they faced. Helmberger was busier, stopping 32 of 33 while Dittmer was perfect with 26 saves.