Hill-Murray junior forward Jake Guentzel (right) watches a second period goal by Zach LaValle (left) beat St. Thomas Academy goaltender David Zevnik on Thursday, Jan. 26. Photo by Jon Laqua
After being one goal away from a state tournament appearance, perhaps no team in the metro area went through as tough of a 2011 offseason -- personnel wise -- as Hill-Murray did.
Along with the loss of several seniors to graduation, the Pioneers saw several of their key underclassmen depart for other opportunities; leaving Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner with a small group of players to rebuild.
Hill-Murray junior forward Zach LaValle (left) carries the puck in on St. Thomas Academy defenseman Grant Sattler (right) on Thursday, Jan. 26. Photo by Jon Laqua
If that weren’t enough, several skaters were members of Hill-Murray’s state tournament appearing football team last fall -- including junior forward and co-captain Zach LaValle who is the Pioneers' starting quarterback; pushing back their availability for hockey.
Taking into account all of those factors, it’s safe to say things were not quite up to par at the beginning of the year for the Pioneers.
“Proud (of) football -- but wrong year to do it,” Lechner said, jokingly. “So (the football players on the hockey team) were behind but we were young to begin with. When you're young, you go through learning curves.”
Despite a rough start for the Pioneers, recently Lechner’s team has worked its way into the Top 10 rankings as a result of good showing in recent games, including Hill-Murray’s 5-2 victory over St. Thomas Academy on Thursday, Jan. 26.
“It's been alright,” Hill-Murray forward Jake Guentzel said about the season. “We've had our ups and downs so it's been tough for us but I think we're coming together as one now which is helping us be better.”
Hill-Murray is also starting to understand that it takes more than simply being around each other during practice to develop any true chemistry.
“We try to do everything as a team like go to team meals or go to workouts together as one,” Guentzel said. “Just include everyone.”
That sort of attitude is now carrying over to the ice as the Pioneers had five different goal scorers -- Zach Mills, Conrad Sampair, Zach LaValle, Charlie Sampair and Blake Heinrich -- in their victory over the Cadets.
“It helps when we have five different scorers,” Guentzel said. “We always have different people coming up, just try to get them the puck and they can score.”
Though not scoring, Guentcel made his impact on the game with three assists.
“He's a very unselfish young man,” Lechner said of Guentzel. “All of us -- if we're ever back playing hockey and life starts over, I want to be on his line because if you get open, he's going to find you. Obviously he's very skilled and could be more shooting the puck and at times he has to but he can dish.
“He's the 'Ricky Rubio' of the (Pioneers).”
For Lechner, the offensive production from multiple players was reason enough to be pleased with the win.
“If teams try to shut down a certain line, right now we've got a mix and match of guys that can put the puck in the net,” Lechner said. “So it's getting there -- we're not there yet.
“Even the game last Saturday (Jan. 21) we scored 14 goals against an opponent that has a little more struggles, but I looked and we had 10 different players score the goals. And those are good things. A better test will be Mahtomedi on Saturday and then we got Eagan."
If the victory over St. Thomas Academy is any indication, it appears that the stronger Hill-Murray’s team chemistry becomes, the more dangerous the Pioneers will be down the road.
“(The players) are coming together and they're starting to believe,” Lechner said. “Some guys don't get as much playing time but yet they're really supportive and they work really hard at practice so they're pushing the other guys. The older, more experience guys are playing well together.
“The bonding between the coaching staff, the players, the systems -- with the puck, without the puck -- they're starting to see that it works if you just do it the right way. And those are things that just take experience and time to get done.”
Hill-Murray junior goaltender John Dugas (No. 1) positions himself to make one of his 20 saves against St. Thomas Academy on Thursday, Jan. 26. Photo by Adam Crane
Things haven't been easy for Hill-Murray goaltender John Dugas.
The junior has started most of the Pioneers’ games including difficult non-conference matchups with opponents like Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Burnsville, Wayzata, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and twice against St. Thomas Academy.
Dugas’ last game wasn’t a fond memory after being replaced after one period against Eden Prairie.
However, Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner was confidence enough with Dugas to give him the nod against the Cadets on Thursday, Jan. 26, and he responded by making 20 saves for the victory.
“(Dugas) came back,” Lechner said. “He had a rough one against Eden Prairie -- gave up four. To defend him, he was rough, gave up rebounds but our defense and our forwards weren't helping out without the puck. We were pretty ugly the first period against Eden Prairie.
“It was good to see John come back.”
Dugas was not afraid to take blame for some rough points in the Pioneers’ season as well as credit his teammates for their support.
“I think I played well at the beginning of the season and then I had a few bumps in the road,” Dugas said. “These guys are picking me up so it's obvious to see that they've matured so much. We let up a lot of shots earlier in the season and now we're only letting up (around) 20, so it's making my job a lot easier which is just a credit to all the hard work the guys have put in.”
Against St. Thomas Academy during one, 30-second span in the first period, Dugas made back-to-back glove saves against Cadets’ defenseman Eric Schurhamer and Peter Kreiger. The stops against two form Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League players clearly provided a boost of confidence for the junior netminder.
“I think definitely when you make a good save it kind of gets your head in the game right away,” Dugas said. “It definitely helps you. Both those guys (Schurhamer and Krieger) are great players. I didn't really notice right away but you can tell by how hard the shot is coming that it's from someone good.”
Hoping to settle into a groove in-goal for the Pioneers, Dugas knows just how importance it is for him to provide continually quality performances.
“We just have to finish out our conference, we can't give up an easy game, we got to close it out so we can take the conference championship and run,” Dugas said. “Non-conference we just got to start building up some wins and building up some confidence as we head into playoffs.”
Five different players scored for Hill-Murray and John Dugas made 20 saves as the Pioneers blazed past St. Thomas Academy, 5-2, on Thursday, Jan. 26.
Hill-Murray started and ended the game with a goal as Zach Mills got the Pioneers on the board 14 seconds into the game and Blake Heinrich netted a power-play goal as time expired in the third period.
Also scoring for Hill-Murray was Conrad Sampair, Zach LaValle and Charlie Sampair.
Jake Guentzel recorded three assists and Andy Faust was also in a giving mood with a pair of assists for the Pioneers.
St. Thomas Academy forwards Austin Sattler and Henry Hart each scored timely goals in the second and third period, respectively, that would cut into Hill-Murray's lead but the Cadets could never score the tying goal.
David Zevnik finished with 25 saves for St. Thomas Academy.
Hill-Murray (11-5-0) will travel to St. Croix Recreation Center on Saturday, Jan. 28, at 3 p.m. for another Classic Suburban Conference clash against Mahtomedi.
Hoping to bounce back, St. Thomas Academy (11-5-0) will take on Richfield on Saturday, Jan. 28, for a 3 p.m. game at Richfield Ice Arena.
1. Jake Guentzel, Hill-Murray
Doing his best 'Ricky Rubio' impression, Guentzel dished out three assists and was constantly a threat in the offensive zone while drawing heavy attention from St. Thomas Academy defensemen. The junior forward fired tricky shots on goal including some resulting in dangerous rebounds but it was his vision that set up his teammates.
2. John Dugas, Hill-Murray
While 20 saves isn't even close to the single-game save record, Dugas came up big for the Pioneers at several key points throughout the game. The junior goaltender did not allow any goals on the Cadets' power plays and made back-to-back glove saves against Eric Schurhamer and Peter Krieger -- two of St. Thomas Academy's top scorers. Dugas absolutely stuffed Cadets' forward Alex Johnson with a toe save coming on a second period power play, keeping the Pioneers ahead by one.
3. Henry Hart, St. Thomas Academy
His second period goal may not have mattered in the grand scheme of things but it was a nice reward for the hard-working junior. Hart also put on a puck-handling clinic displaying some nifty moves in the Hill-Murray zone.