Blaine's Alex Copa (11) streaks into the Moorhead zone during Blaine's 5-2 victory Tuesday night. Photos by Tim Kolehmainen.
Nick Malvin (32) made 33 saves for Blaine in Tueday's victory at Moorhead. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
Blaine’s Joey Vegel didn’t like the way his senior season was winding down.
In just the last two weeks, perennially strong Blaine suffered through its first three-game losing streak in seven years, then was walloped by top-ranked Duluth East Saturday for its fourth loss in five games. The Bengals (13-8-0) weren’t peaking for the playoffs -- they were in a nosedive.
Vegel reached out to his teammates, first with his words. Late Monday night, every Bengals’ cell phone -- including that of head coach Dave Aus -- buzzed with a message from their senior captain.
“He said, ‘Hey, we got there last year and we’re more than good enough to get there this year,’” said Aus, whose team is the six-time defending Section 5AA champion. “I think what he did last night was kind of get guys refocused on what needs to happen.”
Vegel explained his motivation behind the message. “It’s my senior year and I want to get back to the (state) tournament again. That was one of the most awesome things that has ever happened in my life – skating out on that (Xcel Energy Center) ice.”
Tuesday night at the Moorhead Sports Center, Vegel backed up his words with his play.
With seventh-ranked Moorhead (16-5-0) leading 2-1 on its home ice, Vegel picked off a clearing pass just inside the Spuds’ blue line, wheeled and buzzed a rising wrister over the shoulder of goaltender Michael Bitzer. The rocket of a shot tied the game at 2-all late in the first period – and was the first of four unanswered goals for Blaine in a 5-2 victory.
“I just slapped down my stick and took a shot on net,” downplayed Vegel, who has five goals on the season.
The victory over the Spuds was important from a psychological standpoint for the young Bengals. After losing Saturday to Duluth East, 9-1, the state tournament seemed as distant as their first Social Security check – and about as likely to be cashed in.
“We were pretty disappointed with the Duluth East game,” said Vegel.
“Saturday was embarrassing enough for us that we decided we were going to react to it,” agreed Aus. “The kids responded. We had a lot of focus.”
Blaine used its speed to success against Moorhead, breaking out of its defensive zone quickly and creating numerous odd-man rushes. Junior Joe Awaijane scored a pair of goals and Nick Malvin was strong in goal with 33 saves.
“It’s a stepping stone,” said sophomore Tyler Cline, who scored a third-period goal against Moorhead that stretched the lead to 4-2. “We have to keep working on getting better.”
A top-two seed in this year’s section playoffs isn’t yet guaranteed for the Bengals. Maple Grove appears to have the No. 1 seed locked up for the second straight year. Blaine is the favorite for the No. 2, although the Bengals have a tough closing schedule with games against surging Anoka and Andover and a regular season finale grudge match at Centennial. But if they play as they did Tuesday night, the Bengals can close with a flourish.
“We were good tonight,” said Aus. “We would have beaten a lot of teams.”
That’s not what the rest of Section 5AA wants to hear. They’ve been trying to stop the Bengals for seven years.
Moorhead's Bryant Christian (11) attempts to move the puck past Blaine's Cole Mortenson (18). Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
So much for a slump. Blaine shrugged off any suggestion of such with a resounding 5-2 victory at No. 7AA Moorhead Tuesday night, Feb. 7 at the Moorhead Sports Center. The Bengals had entered the game losing four of their past five, but didn't look like a team on a slide.
Junior Joe Awaijane scored twice, including a goal just 31 seconds into the game that seemed to spark the Bengals (13-8-0). After Moorhead's Logan Ness and Tony Uglem pulled the Spuds (16-5-0) ahead with back-to-back goals midway through the first, Blaine scored four unanswered goals.
Senior captain Joey Vegel tied the game with a rising wrister that buzzed over goalie Michael Bitzer's shoulder just 1 minute, 31 seconds after Moorhead took its only lead. Vegel -- who fired up his teammates as the playoffs approach by sending an encouraging text message Monday -- is one of a handful of senior leaders on an otherwise very young Blaine team. Just 56 seconds after Vegel's goal, sophomore Nic Simpson netted the game-winner on a tipped pass from fellow sophomore Tyler Frischmon.
Tyler Cline and Awaijane scored in the third period to ice the game.
Senior goalie Nick Malvin was solid in goal, not allowing Moorhead to crash the net for rebounds as is their style -- there were no rebounds to be had. Malvin made 33 saves on 35 shots while Bitzer also had 33 saves for the Spuds.
1. Joey Vegel, Blaine
As one of the few senior leaders on a young Bengals' squad, Vegel led both by his words and his actions Tuesday night. On Monday, Vegel sent his teammates a text message asking them to pick up their play as the team entered the playoffs. Then on Tuesday, he scored the game-tying goal late in the first period on a rising wrister that seemed to surprise goalie Michael Bitzer with its velocity. Vegel's goal was the first of four unaswered for the Bengals.
2. Nick Malvin, Blaine
Malvin, Blaine's senior goaltender, didn't really have any spectacular saves Tuesday night. He didn't have to, as he was in position to swallow up nearly every first attempt the Spuds' fired. Malvin made 33 saves on 35 shots, including all 15 in the third period as Moorhead tried to rally. A calm and veteran influence in goal.
3. Michael Brodzinski, Blaine
Brodzinski, a junior defenseman, didn't factor on the score sheet for the Bengals, but he was an anchor on the blue line all night long. Brodzinski played seemingly half of the game and his outlet passes allowed the Bengals several odd-man rushes.