Eden Prairie sophomore Derrick LaCombe made 37 saves in the Eagles' 2-1 upset victory over Eagan. Photo by Helen Nelson
Eden Prairie’s Derrick LaCombe, making his first varsity start, didn’t quite know what he was facing.
It only figures then, after beating highly touted and ultra-talented Eagan 2-1 on Saturday, Dec. 3, the sophomore wasn’t fully aware of what he had just done.
LaCombe, who repeatedly frustrated one of the state’s most explosive forward lines while making 37 saves, might as well have been playing a team from Fiji for all he knew about the Wildcats.
The mention of Michael Zajac elicited a blank stare. Will Merchant got a shrug of the shoulders. Nick Kuchera a shake of the head.
“I’m not the best with names, no,” LaCombe said when asked about debuting against a Wildcats forward line -- unquestionably one of the top four or five in the state -- that amassed 157 points last season.
LaCombe can be forgiven for not being up to speed on the high school hockey scene. He played on Eden Prairie’s state championship Bantam team last season, when he served mostly a backup in the playoffs.
Junior Jake Gerdes got the start ahead of LaCombe in the Eagles’ season-opening 7-5 win over Bloomington Jefferson.
Eden Prairie goaltender Derrick LaCombe stops a shot by Eagan defenseman Eli May. Photo by Helen Nelson
Finally getting his chance to step into the spotlight, LaCombe wasn’t about to melt under the glare. He made 14 saves in a first period that was played mostly in the Eagles end. He only got better as the game wore on.
“I guess he’s announced himself to everyone now,” Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. “He’s playing with confidence. Let’s face it, if you play with confidence you can do amazing things.”
Zajac, Merchant and Kuchera all had prime scoring chances. Several of them. Only Merchant, on a quick shot off a face-off in the second period, could beat LaCombe.
“Before the first period we didn’t really know if we could take them down,” LaCombe said about the Wildcats, who returned almost of their top players from last year’s team that finished third in the state Class 2A tournament and were ranked No. 1 in the metro area in the preseason by the Star Tribune. “But after the first we had no doubt that we could beat that team.
“You make one save after another, you kind of build your confidence. And then your team plays good in front of you, that always helps, too.”
LaCombe made 13 saves in the third period, when the Eagles were outshot 13-4. Eden Prairie, which graduated 13 seniors from last season’s state Class 2A championship team, was outshot 37-17.
“I think, No. 1, they had great goaltending,” Eagan coach Mike Taylor said. “They played great team defense, they gritted it out.
“They played physical, they blocked shots.”
LaCombe did an excellent job of controlling his rebounds, but when there were second-chance opportunities the Eagles’ defense was quick to clear pucks out of harm’s way.
In the end, it was LaCombe's game to steal. He made a handful of brilliant stops in the final two minutes, flicking a right leg pad on a Kuchera shot as time expired to put an exclamation mark on his performance.
“We know he’s a good goalie,” Eden Prairie senior defenseman Luc Sudman said. “We’ve seen him practice and played with him a lot. We knew he was capable of it.
“He just brought that extra stuff tonight. He stood on his head.
“It was great.”
Eden Prairie players mob goaltender Derick La Combe, and knock an official over in the their excitment, after beating Eagan 2-1 at the Eden Prairie Community Center. Photo by Helen Nelson
Eagan joined Duluth East, Minnetonka and Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the preseason as the consensus top four teams with state Class 2A championship-caliber talent.
After the Wildcats become the first of the Big Four to lose, falling 2-1 to Eden Prairie, Eagan coach Mike Taylor wasn’t ready to panic.
“We’re not unbeatable,” Taylor said. “We have to work for everything we get.
“But if you always give this good of an effort, nine out of 10 times you are going to be OK. We’ll be OK.”
Eagan outshot Eden Prairie 38 to 19 and played long stretches of the first and third periods in the Eagles’ end.
“I’m better with this than if we came in here and laid an egg and didn’t give a good effort,” Taylor said. “I’m good with the effort, except the eight minutes there in the second period.”
Taylor noted the outcome was a reversal of the regular season meeting between the teams a year ago, when the Wildcats stunned the senior-laden Eagles behind a command performance from goaltender Tommy Bodeker.
“It’s not February,” Taylor said about Saturday’s loss that put the Wildcats at 1-1-0. “So what you do is you learn from it. You grow from it."
Sophomore Derrick LaCombe, making his varsity start, turned aside 37 shots – including at least a dozen point-blank opportunities – to lead Eden Prairie past consensus top-four state Class 2A ranked Eagan 2-1 on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Eden Prairie Community Center.
The Eagles are the defending state Class 2A champion but experience-depleted after graduating 13 seniors, one of which was three-year starting goaltender Andrew Ford.
Eagan, featuring one of the state’s most fearsome forward lines in Michael Zajac, Will Merchant and Nick Kuchera and ranked as the top team in the metro area by the Star Tribune, pelted the 5-foot-9 LaCombe with 14 shots in the first period and 13 more in the third.
The only goal LaCombe allowed was by Merchant, who scored on a quick shot off a face off to put Eagan ahead 1-0 early in the second period.
Eden Prairie tied it at 1 with 9:33 left in the second when Andrew Knutson scored to cap a 3-on-0 Eagles rush, converting a pretty give-and-go feed from Mason Bergh.
Eagles junior John Sullivan scored the winner with 2 seconds left in the second period as jammed the puck home to conclude a goalmouth scramble.
The teams combined for 10 penalties in the second period, but there was just one infraction called in a free-flowing third.
Eagan outshot Eden Prairie 13-4 in the final period and 38-19 overall.
1. Derrick LaCombe, Eden Prairie
The precocious sophomore repeatedly frustrated Eagan’s big three of Michael Zajac, Will Merchant and Nick Kuchera with mesmerizing save after mesmerizing save. LaCombe, making his first varsity start, finished with 37 stops in all, and only a handful of those could be considered routine.
2. Luke Sudman, Eden Prairie
The rangy senior defenseman and co-captain was a workhorse for the Eagles, especially in the third period when he logged heavy ice time during the Wildcats’ desperate attempt at a comeback. Sudman used his big body effectively and was superb in limiting Eagan to precious few second-chance opportunities.
3. Michael Zajac, Eagan
A senior with the full compliment of skills – skating, passing, shooting, hitting, you name it – Zajac set up linemate Will Merchant’s second-period goal, dished several other pinpoint passes, threw his body around effectively and came oh-so-close to scoring on numerous occasions.