Maple Grove defenseman Jordan Gross reached for a flying puck with his stick during a recent practice at the Maple Grove Community Center.
Returning Maple Grove boys' hockey players can tell you the only thing more difficult than living with an upset loss is answering a question that won't die.
The No. 1 seed Crimson rode a 17-game unbeaten streak into last season's Class 2A, Section 5 championship game against second-seeded Blaine but left the State Fairgrounds Coliseum stinging from a 4-3 overtime loss.
So guys, how many times have people asked, "What happened?"
"Too many," Spencer Bell said. "Our whole school and our community thought we had it in the bag."
"It's sickening," said Dylan Steman, focusing on the numb feeling rather than the numbers. "It's still pretty personal."
"Too many to count," Drew Aspinwall said. "The answer is burned into my head."
The answer is neither simple nor satisfying. Missed chances: Maple Grove outshot Blaine 44-27 but failed to put away enough pucks. Inexperience: The junior-dominated roster had few players who logged ice time in the previous season's section title game. Blaine, meanwhile, was playing in its sixth consecutive section championship game. The game of hockey itself: As Bell said, "We had a better team but the game could've gone either way and they got lucky at the end."
A new season is at hand and much of Maple Grove's success hinges on an ability to learn from the disappointment without wallowing in it. Players believe they are taking the right balance of hunger and humility into their pursuit of Maple Grove's first state tournament appearance.
"We're not taking one day off whether we're playing the top teams or the worst teams," Aspinwall said. "We want to get good habits down so when we're in tough situations, we get the job done."
Five of the Crimson's six leaders in points return, including Steman, Tony Paulson and Shane Wolden. Defenseman Jordan Gross, who gave a verbal commitment to Notre Dame, returns for his junior season to man the blue line with Aspinwall and Jordan Freberg. And goaltender Kyle Koop hopes to minimize the loss of All- Metro first-team selection Ryan Coyne.
Koop, who didn't allow a goal in four scrimmages, gave up three in the season opener against Wayzata but rebounded to blank Edina.
"He doesn't get rattled," coach Gary Stefano said of Koop.
Taking a cue from their goalie, Maple Grove skaters said they are approaching this season with confidence and calm.
"It comes down to hard work and making simple plays," Aspinwall said. "Sometimes you need to chip the puck off the glass instead of making a cross-ice pass. A great-looking play might be a turnover."
More maturity also should serve the Crimson well.
"I wouldn't say we were too cocky last year," Bell said. "But we learned you can't get too high on your horse or think you're so much better than your opponent. You have to respect your opponent."
Last season, Maple Grove parlayed strong depth and shared scoring into arguably the most successful season in school history. Stefano said he believes his current team brings similar assets to the rink.
The Crimson, he said, "have two great lines and a third line that's shaping up," along with three veteran defensemen.
"We were on the same level with Blaine, if not a little higher," Stefano said. "Same thing this year. Two years in a row now we got to the final section game. But we haven't finished a 51-minute game."