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The last time Chisago Lakes made the state hockey tournament in 1995, current seniors and Wildcats stars Brandon Gillespie and Trevor Lushanko were infants.

It's been nearly 20 years, but after Chisago Lakes' 5-4 roller coaster victory over Princeton in the Section 5A championsihp on Thursday night, the Wildcats will be playing for a shot at the Class 1A title.

"It means the world to me," Lushanko said. "It means the world to bring my town to go to the Xcel Energy Center. I'm so happy we get to bring the town out there for the first time in 19 years. It's a great feeling, absolutely."

Chisago Lakes coach Paul Gibson saw this moment coming for a long time. He said the current group of players has experienced success at every level along the way.

"If anybody could do it, it'd be this group," Gibson said. "They've had a lot of success, and the reason they have success is they play together, they share the puck and they play for one another. It means so much to them, and it means so much to me because it means so much to them."

The Wildcats (20-8-0) had beaten Princeton (15-13-0) twice in the regular season, and as the old saying goes: it's tough to beat a team three times in one season.

But Chisago Lakes kept pounding the puck at the net, despite the Tigers answering almost every goal the Wildcats scored.

"We kept going back and forth, but we knew we could do it, we just had to grind it out," Gillespie said.

The "grinder" mentality is exactly why the Wildcats are heading to St. Paul, according to their coach. Gibson said the third period is the team's best, thanks in large part to its strength and conditioning coach, who doubles as Gibson's wife.

"We like that situation and we like our chances (heading into the third period tied), because it's our strong period," Gibson said. "We've got legs left going into that third period, and I think it showed here tonight."

According to Lushanko, the state tournament appearance has been a long time coming for Chisago Lakes.

"We've always been in the section with St. Thomas (Academy), which was always kind of tough because it's a double-A school playing in a single-A section," Lushanko said. "Before the season, we knew we were in this section and we knew we had a legit chance, so we took advantage of that … and we just worked our butt off to get where we are right now."

Sometimes, all a team needs is just one chance to make a season special. For a team and community that experienced 19 years of a state tournament drought, the Wildcats are special already.

"It's unbelievable," Gibson said. "We're a small community and our success comes once in awhile. It means the world to the community … the entire hockey community was here, and it's just a great night for Chiasgo hockey."

What do the Wildcats have to do in order to produce a few more great nights at Xcel Energy Center? Lushanko summed things up pretty simply.

"Our goalie's (Jake Dubose) gotta play great, which I know he will, and that's going to be big," Lushanko said. "We'll probably have to play one of the top teams, so we're just going to have to match their speed, get shots on net and bury some."

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