Hermantown's Chris Benson (20) and Derek Wiitala (18) of Breck battle for a loose puck in the Hawks' 4-3 double-overtime victory Friday afternoon. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
It was a heavyweight fight.
But they knew it would be.
Hermantown’s top-line of Bo Gronseth, Travis Koepke and Chris Benson and Breck’s ace grouping of Matt Colford, Thomas Lindstrom and Jack O’Connor figured they’d be matched against each other in Friday’s Class 1A semifinal at Xcel Energy Center.
They were, and the results were brilliant.
In what seemed more like a 12-round fight than a double-overtime hockey game, each team’s catalysts traded body blows and haymakers, waiting for the others to fall to the mat and call it quits.
That never happened.
“Coach told us before the game that we were going to match one-for-one with them all night,” Colford said. “That was a challenge we were willing to accept. I thought we battled well with them the whole game.”
They certainly did. Breck’s lightning-quick skating and knockout ability nearly accomplished the job when Lindstrom and O’Connor struck for back-to-back goals in a 53-second span between late in the second and early in the third periods, putting the Mustangs up 2-1 in the final period of regulation.
“They’re a very fast transitioning team,” Koepke said. “If you make one mistake, they’re going back the other way. They get up the ice quickly and we had to be careful to not make mistakes.”
But whenever the Hawks stumbled, they found a way to recover.
Koepke answered with a pair of goals late in the game to force the extra sessions. The back-and-forth didn’t end there.
In overtime, both lines stormed up and down the rink, creating chances and offensive zonetime without any results on the scoreboard.
Fatigue set in, and both titans figured it would end in an unexpected manner.
“It was starting to feel like it was going to be one fluky thing that would end the game,” Koepke said. “It kind of was. We wore each other down and it was a wash. We scored three goals and I’m pretty sure their top line had three as well.
“You had to expect it was going to be an weird ending.”
Koepke called it, and the final blow was delivered by Zach Kramer on a seeing-eye shot from the bottom of the left circle.
Fitting ending. Both heavyweights rolled with the punches and never faltered, and the coaches knew it would come down to a role player.
“The x-factor was one of our other guys I guess,” said Hermantown coach Bruce Plante. “That really helps when you get some secondary scoring. All we needed was that one goal, and we got it. It was a hero goal.”
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff
St. Thomas Academy hasn’t had the most difficult route to the Class 1A finals this year. The Cadets have outscored their two opponents – St. Cloud Apollo and East Grand Forks – by a combined 23-0 score while outshooting those teams 83-17.
The Cadets look bored.
With their last shot at a Class 1A title staring them in the face and a jump to Class 2A on the horizon, how do they stay focused?
“Well, you just got to keep working,” said coach Greg Vannelli. “[Work on] good habits and things like that.”
St. Thomas Academy has worked on its systems, its defense and its mental game during its two-game romp through the Class 1A tournament.
Facing a hungry Hermantown team, one that has lost in each of the past three Class 1A title games – twice to STA – the Cadets will be challenged to get back up for a game after essentially sleepwalking through the first two.
Will it be a problem? STA doesn’t think so.
“We were preparing all year for this game. We’re all ready to play,” said Tony Bretzman. “Everyone’s doing what they can and little things add up and make big things happen.”
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff
For the past three years, St. Thomas Academy has certainly built itself a villainous reputation. With a dominant hockey program over the past decade, including four Class 1A titles, many have been urging the Cadets to make the move to Class 2A.
After years of waiting not-so-quietly, fans got their wish.
St. Thomas Academy declared it would move up for the 2013-2014 season, ushering in a new era for the program.
Will the Cadets return to the state tournament in their first year in Class 2A? There is always the possibility of playing perennial state power -- and Classic Suburban Conference rival -- Hill-Murray either at state or in the section tournament. Next year will be a pivotal movement for the program, but until then it has continued to take plenty of heat from the hockey community.
"Six out of eight teams seem to come back every year," said St. Thomas Academy head coach Greg Vannelli. "It's not just us, we've just happened to win the final the past two years."
St. Thomas Acadmey has been to the state tournament seven times. Edina has been to the tournament 24 times, including seven in a row. The Cadets have not had the long-term dominance of other programs in the state, but the last seven years have been notable.
"The guys worked hard to get where they are at," said Vannelli. "When we first started at St. Thomas, I think they finished last place in their conference."
St. Thomas Academy had its bumps and bruises, but it cashed in on the coaching lottery, hiring Vannelli and his brother Tom. The program was turned around drastically and began winning 20 games a season until St. Thomas Academy was the top team in its section.
"It is time to move on now, (but) it isn't something you do from day one," commented Vannelli. "There just wasn't that much success. That wasn't that long ago, ten years."
-- Trevor Squire, MN Hockey Hub staff