Eagan's Eli May (14) gets congratulations from his teammates after scoring a goal with 2:15 left in the first period of the Class AA third-place game between the Wildcats and Edina (Photo by Helen Nelson).
Eagan coach Mike Taylor watches as his Wildcats claimed the Class AA third place trophy (Photo by Helen Nelson).
For the first time in school history, Eagan got a taste of playing on the final day of the Minnesota high school hockey season.
The Wildcats beat second-seeded Edina 5-3 in the state Class 2A third-place game Saturday afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Nick Kuchera scored two goals and Tommy Bodeker made 16 saves for Eagan (21-7-2).
“Hopefully we’ve started something off that we have a tradition of winning in the state tournament,” Bodeker said.
The Wildcats took a big step this winter, qualifying for the second state tournament in school history – and winning their first quarterfinal game to get into the championship round. In Eagan’s first visit in 2006, they were knocked into the consolation bracket by Cretin-Derham Hall.
A second-time visitor isn’t supposed to put up much of a fight against the big dogs, but don’t’ tell that to Eagan.
If the Wildcats were starry-eyed this year, it wasn’t apparent in their play. Eagan shut down Moorhead 4-0 in the quarterfinals before falling to top-seeded Eden Prairie in Friday’s semifinals.
“The first time we went out on the ice seeing all those fans and just those bright lights, it was crazy, especially since none of us had ever been here before,” Kuchera said.
Kuchera is just one of several top juniors who will be back next winter, along with snipers Michael Zajac and Will Merchant – the team’s top three scorers -- and defensemen Derick Kuchera, Sam Wolfe and Eli May.
Coach Mike Taylor challenges his team with a mandatory offseason program, which begins at 7:15 a.m. three days a week – and often doesn’t end until four hours later, rain or shine.
“If you’ve already put in the work during the offseason, it’s not that hard to come out for the games,” said Kuchera. “That’s the fun part.”
“We have a saying, ‘How good do you want to be?’ ” said Taylor, who relayed a story that showed how his team reflects his intensity level.
On one blistering summer morning, the skies opened up with a rainstorm as the Wildcats were doing sprints and cone drills. Rather than run for cover, every member of the team stayed outside until they finished the workout – drenched from head to toe.
“As a coach, when you see a group like that, you know you have something,” Taylor said.
Opponents praised the Wildcats all season for their speed and their strength. It’s rare that a team offers both, but Eagan does. It’s that kind of talent to go with their work ethic that could keep the Wildcats returning to state year after year – in search of a different type of Saturday victory.
“If we ever slack off, I’ll point out that I don’t have a ring yet,” said Taylor. “None of us have a ring yet, and we want that.
Eagan's John Carroll passes just out of the reach of Edina's Steven Fogarty (Photo by Helen Nelson).
Junior Nick Kuchera (3) scored twice for Eagan in its 5-3 victory over Edina Saturday afternoon (Photo by Helen Nelson).
In a matter of hours, Eagan had to pick itself up and play another game after taking the proverbial punch in the mouth from No. 1 seed Eden Prairie in the state Class 2A semifinals.
After all, the Wildcats had another battle with a Lake Conference opponent in No. 2 seed Edina in the third place game.
“We found out we had the Hornets,” Eagan goalie Tommy Bodeker said.
From the drop of the puck, Eagan was the aggressor and earned a 5-3 victory on Saturday, March 12, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to bring home third place honors in just its second state tournament appearance in school history.
“Feels great, especially for our seniors,” Eagan forward Nick Kuchera said. “To go out on a good note is really relieving. Even though it’s not first, it’s a great way to end the season.”
“I just think it shows the mental toughness, Wildcats coach Mike Taylor added. “Last night, I don’t know, we were flat. When you get that late draw it’s tough. We went back to the hotel, regrouped and said our season’s not over. We can still play for some hardware and you get to play Edina. As a coach you can sell that, but you have to have a group of young men that are mentally tough enough and passionate enough about each other.”
Tthe Wildcats regrouped in a hurry.
Ryan Nelson scored 1 minute, 50 seconds into the game to get Eagan on the board.
That lead would eventually stretch to 3-0 after goals by Eli May and Nick Kuchera, who had two goals for the Wildcats.
“It wasn’t very hard for us to get up for this game,” Kuchera said. “We already lost to them in a pretty tough way earlier this season. So, our whole team just had the passion to come out and get revenge against these guys.”
Edina made a game of it late on a goal by Joey Krupp to make it a 4-3 Eagan lead.
That is as close as the Hornets would get in denying the Wildcats of receiving their first hardware from the state hockey tournament as Will Merchant picked off a pass in the Hornets’ zone and buried the puck into an open net to ice the game and the bronze for Eagan.
“I think it’s awesome and I’m really proud this group of kids,” Taylor said, “but I hope the community of Eagan is proud of itself too because this doesn’t just happen. This is people putting in a lot of time and effort in our youth program. These kids just didn’t lie at our doorstep. They’ve come all the way up through.”
“School was really supportive,” Bodeker said. “Sections and state. Younger kids in the program are getting psyched too, so hopefully we started something.”
-- Justin Magill, Hockey Hub contributor
Edina's Ben Walker (14) starts up ice on a rush (Photo by Helen Nelson).
Nick Kuchera scored twice and nine other skaters recorded at least one point for Eagan as the Wildcats defeated Edina 5-3 in the state Class 2A third-place game.
Derick Kuchera -- Nick's twin brother -- and Connor McGovern each had two assists for the Wildcats.
Eagan junior forward Will Merchant's empty net goal with two seconds left sealed the victory following a late comeback by the Hornets.
Eagan senior goaltender and co-captain Tommy Bodeker made 16 saves as the Wildcats' defense held the 2010 state champion Hornets to 19 total shots.
Senior forwards Jake Sampson, Steve Fogarty and Joey Kopp provided an impact in their last game for Edina. Sampson registered three points (one goal, two assists), Fogarty had two assists and Kopp scored a big goal in the third period bringing the Hornets within one.
Edina senior goaltender Connor Girard made 26 saves as the Hornets finish the year with a 19-8-2 record.
Eagan takes home the third place trophy in its second state tournament appearance. The Wildcats end the season with a 21-7-2 record.
-- Michael Murakami, Hockey Hub
1. Nick Kuchera, Eagan
Kuchera, a junior forward, was all over the ice against the Hornets, taking shots, scoring goals, dishing checks generally creating mayhem. He finished with two goals, a team-best seven shots on goal and was had a sparkling plus/minus rating of plus 4.
2. Derick Kuchera, Eagan
Subscribing to the theory that two Kuchera’s are better than one, the Wildcats also unleased Derek, Nick’s twin brother, on the Hornets. The defenseman had two assists – both on goals by his brother – and provided airtight coverage in the Wildcats' zone for much of the game.
3. Jake Sampson, Edina
The senior forward had a goal and two assists, sparking Edina to a mini-comeback after the Hornets fell behind 3-0.
-- Loren Nelson, Hockey Hub