Hill-Murray's Jake Guentzel skates past Moorhead's Tony Uglem. Photo by Helen Nelson
Although Hill-Murray has knocked off some impressive opponents, and they currently hold a well-deserved No. 10 ranking, the Pioneers had yet to defeat a real class 2A heavyweight coming into their matchup with No. 8-ranked Moorhead.
Previously, they lost to Eden Prairie, Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Wayzata, Eagan, and Minnetonka, all teams that populate the top ten.
This meant that coming into the 6-1 victory on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, Hill-Murray had something to prove.
In their last regular season game of the year, the Pioneers answered the bell. Definitively.
Scoring the first four goals of the game, Hill-Murray more than won the match up; they ran the Spuds out of the building. The Pioneers physically dominated Moorhead, keeping them out of the slot and punishing them in the corners. They also beat the Spuds in the skill games, leaking a handful of two-on-ones, breakaways, and flying past defenders with pure speed.
“We kept the game simple early and we got the lead which helps a lot,” Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said. “We locked up on ‘D’ and our forwards came back and helped a lot. We didn’t give them a lot of great chances and the ones they did – I thought our goalie [John Dugas] played well.”
Hill-Murray not only won on the scoreboard, but they passed the eye test with ease.
“It was a good convincing win today,” Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said. “We’re telling whoever is watching or listening or cares that we have potential to do good things so here we come.”
With the win, the Pioneers have won seven games in a row, completing a dominant stretch of play and ending without a loss in the month of February. After a slow beginning of the season, finishing with a flourish should go a long way towards helping them blaze a trail to the Xcel Energy Center for the state tournament.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” Lechner said. “Obviously it’s gonna be a new day and we gotta start over but it definitely builds momentum. I thought we played a pretty complete game today, to have that and know that the kids can do it and feel confident about it.”
To begin the season, Hill-Murray experienced growing pains, starting out 0-2 and finishing December just 6-4. Lechner’s squad is filled with youth, featuring just five seniors and rounded out with mostly juniors.
“We’re a season in here, we just finished our 25th game,” Lechner said. “A lot of that youth has grown up… We’re feeling good getting ready for playoffs with a win like that.”
Scoring against Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer is always a tall task. He ranks fifth in the state in save percentage and routinely shuts down high-powered offenses with ease.
In Hill-Murray’s 6-1 win over the Spuds, the Pioneers solved Bitzer four times (they had two empty netters) including one by junior forward Jake Guentzel.
Just 56 seconds in the game, Guentzel took a unique approach to beating Bitzer. Instead of shooting it himself, he allowed the Moorhead defense to do him a favor and knock it in.
In a humorous start, Guentzel and teammate Willie Brown were dashing down the ice. Guentzel, known for his passing, decided to feed Brown across the ice. Sliding across the slot however, a Spuds defenseman deflected the puck right past Bitzer who was moving to cover Brown on the other side.
Junior forward Jake Guentzel
Fans in the stands could almost hear the groans coming from Moorhead, and the Pioneers skated away with smiles on their faces.
“It hit off their guys skate and it must’ve gone five-hole on him,” Guentzel said. “I know him from the Elite League so it was pretty funny.”
The goal seemed to take the wind out of Moorhead’s sails, and mess with Bitzer’s concentration.
“It was an early goal so when you get an early one like that it definitely hurts them so it was helpful to us,” Guentzel said.
Guentzel, a junior forward, has made it a habit to benefit from passing the puck this season. In the victory, he tallied a goal and an assist by attempting to dish, adding to his season total of 67 points (21 goals, 46 assists).
“He’s got great hands, great tools. He’s really a competitor,” Lechner said. “I’d want to be his line because he’s gonna find ya. He’s got good instincts and good vision for the game and he’s just a competitor. He’s a junior but he’s one of our leaders and a go-to-guy and he handles it pretty well.”
Guentzel is tied for tenth in the state in points and is second in assists behind ‘Mr. Hockey’ candidate Justin Kloos.
“I like to usually pass,” Guentzel said. “That extra pass that can get back door, that’s nice.”
Hill-Murray's Ryan Black (25) jumps on Conrad Sampair (15) middle and Logan Sharp (9) after Sampair scored a goal against Moorhead. Photo by Helen Nelson
No. 10-ranked Hill-Murray definitively squashed visiting Moorhead on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood, jumping out to an early lead and holding on for a 6-1 victory.
The Pioneers (19-6-0) netted a goal off the leg of Spuds defender (credited to Jake Guentzel) just 56 seconds into the game, deflating No. 8-ranked Moorhead (18-7-0).
Forward Willie Brown followed up the score with a rebound goal in the second period. Just around three minutes after, a Sampair to Sampair connection pushed the score to 3-0 when Conrad Sampair sniped Michael Bitzer with an assist from Charlie Sampair.
Moorhead finally got on the board in the third period when Terry Leabo scored on John Dugas from the point.
The Pioneers ended the game with two empty netters from Davis Zarembinski and Brandon Thompson, leaving the final score at 6-1.
Blake Heinrich also scored for Hill-Murray.
The No. 8-ranked Spuds couldn’t muster many quality scoring chances throughout the game. Although they finished with 24 shots, they didn’t have many near goals since the Hill-Murray defense did a nice job keeping them to the outside.
Goaltender Michael Bitzer made 31 saves for Moorhead.
Sophomore forward Willie Brown (18) of Hill-Murray. Photo by Helen Nelson
1. Jake Guentzel, Hill-Murray
The junior forward got the scoring started for the Pioneers and also assisted on the second goal of the game. The two points added to his season total of 67 (21 goals, 46 assists) which leads Hill-Murray. Guentzel is now the tenth-leading scorer in the state after his performance.
2. John Dugas, Hill-Murray
Dugas made 23 saves in the final game of the regular season for Hill-Murray, keeping the Spuds’ powerful offense at bay with just one goal allowed. He finishes the year with a 13-5-1 record, allowing an average of 2.46 goals per game.
3. Willie Brown, Hill-Murray
Brown tallied three points for the Pioneers, scoring a goal and tacking on two assists. He was in the right place at the right time for a rebound score and also assisted on the first goal of the game for Hill-Murray. The junior forward has 30 points on the season (17 goals, 13 assists).