In a state tournament semifinal clash of white collar and blue collar communities, both teams played their roles to a tee right down to the blue and white sweaters.
But in the end it was the speed and finesse of the Eden Prairie Eagles which prevailed over the Blaine Bengals’ grind-it-out game in a come-from behind 4-2 victory to propel Eden Prairie to its first ever state title game on Saturday night.
“This is special because this group of kids has played so hard together,” said Eden Prairie head coach Lee Smith. “And to see them in the locker room after the second and none of them were all that shook up, you could just feel the inner strength of that team.”
The Eagles overcame a two-goal deficit for the first time this season to come out on top in their first trip to the state semifinals courtesy of Kyle Rau’s two third-period goals. Defensively for the Eagles, goaltender Andrew Ford made 17 saves while defenseman Nick Leddy and company held the dangerous Bengal scoring tandem of Nick Bjugstad and Zac Frischmon to one point between them.
With Blaine’s Ryan Brockway off serving an early holding penalty, Eagle Leddy, the leading candidate for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award, went off for roughing at 3:18 negating the final nine seconds of Eden Prairie’s man-advantage. On the ensuing power play, Bjugstad gave the Bengals the early 1-0 lead.
The sophomore nephew of former Irondale, Gopher, and North Star great Scott Bjugstad scored his team-leading 30th goal of the season unassisted at 4:57. Bjugstad came in hard from the left wing boards and slipped the puck past Eagle goaltender Andrew Ford who received little help from his defensemen out front.
The Bengals went up 2-0 when Travis Kovalchuck’s slapper went wide but caromed off the end boards into the slot to an opportunistic Clayton Wagamon who fired the puck past Ford at 8:29 for his fourth goal of the season.
The Eagles’ best scoring chance of the period came just 20 seconds later when Eden Prairie right wing Joe McQuillan, with Blaine defenseman Ryan Brockway draped over his back, fed a one-handed pass to Jordan Hoffman whose backhand shot rung off the crossbar behind Bengal goaltender Danny Harper.
During the first intermission, Lee didn’t have a whole lot to say to his team when he addressed them.
“We felt like we, actually, didn’t play as bad as the 2-0 score,” said Smith. “I thought the guys were competing hard, in fact I said I wish there was something I could be in here yelling about but I can’t because you guys are battling.”
The Eagles rallied in the second period to outshoot Blaine 9-4 and cut into the Bengal lead. Taylor Wolfe, with a great individual effort to corral a rebound with a Blaine defender all over him, poked the puck past Harper at the 9:52 mark with Bjugstad off for a high-sticking penalty.
Despite the goal, Harper, referred to by his coach David Aus as “the best goalie in Minnesota bar none” after his shutout of Rochester Century on Thursday, appeared extremely focused while turning away several quality Eden Prairie scoring chances.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” said Aus on Thursday. “Mentally he’s tough; he’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever coached. Beyond that he’s such a great kid that it makes it easy for the guys in front of him to play hard because they all love him and care about him.”
But just 6:29 into the third, on the Eagles’ fourth shot of the period, Kyle Rau scored from the left side boards when his shot toward the deflected off the leg of Blaine defenseman Tony Larson past Harper to square the game at two.
From there, the Eagles poured on the pressure, but Harper bailed out the tiring Bengals with huge saves on Mitch Rogge and Rau 30 seconds apart near the 12 minute mark.
However, just under a minute later, Rau turned the corner on a Bengal defenseman at the Eagles’ offensive blue line and dragged his opponent through the left circle before releasing a deadly-accurate wrist shot which Rau claims squeezed through an opening under Harper’s right arm. The sophomore’s team-leading 27th goal of the year gave the Eagles their first lead of the evening.
“Kyle Rau is a special player,” said Smith. “Tonight we reached back in the third and it was ‘tiger time’ and he came up with some big plays.”
Blaine fought back but never really mounted serious pressure on Ford in the late stages of the game much like the final two periods as a whole according to Blaine head coach David Aus.
“I don’t think we challenged (Ford) very much after the first period,” said Aus. “I thought he looked like he was very uptight and certainly thought we could get some other goals out of it but we just didn’t do it.”
Leddy’s empty net goal iced the game for the Eagles and the celebration was on for Eden Prairie’s fans.
Eden Prairie advances to its first hockey state championship game in school history at 7 pm on Saturday night and will take on the Moorhead Spuds who defeated the Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders 2-1 in the late game on Friday.
Blaine, meanwhile, faces the Raiders in the third place game at 4 pm. The Bengals will be playing for third for the second time in four years having defeated Hill-Murray 4-2 in 2006.
“We have a chance to finish the season with a win and get a trophy, but it’s hard to convince them of that, it’s hard to convince me of that because it’s not the trophy we wanted,” said Aus.
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