Eagan's Cullen Willox stretches as he tries to push a shot past Hastings goaltender P.J. Piotrowski. Photo by Helen Nelson
By the time Eagan went up by four goals in the Wildcats’ 10-1 victory over Hastings in the Section 3AA championship, Raiders coach Russ Welch knew his game plan wasn’t working.
When faced with a powerful team such as Eagan, Welch decided that in order to have a shot at a comeback, he needed to think a little outside of the box.
In the second period of the game on Thursday, March 1, at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum in St. Paul, he implemented a unique tactic in an effort to shake things up and get some offensive chances.
The hockey equivalent to a ‘Hail Mary’ in football, the Raiders sat a cherry-picker on the far blue line whenever the Wildcats had possession in the Hastings defensive zone. The idea was, if a Hastings player were to get possession, he could lob it to the deep man for a shot at a breakaway.
“Well, if it would have been one or two to nothing after one we would have stayed with what we had,” Welch said. “We knew if they got more than three goals we were gonna have trouble winning this game. When they got four in the first period we decided to go with it.”
Cody Mason (5) of Eagan skates the puck past Andrew Bussey (15) of Hastings. Photo by Helen Nelson
With a fifth skater permanently out of the Hastings defensive zone, Eagan was free to operate with plenty of space and continue to show off its dynamic scoring ability.
“We were just thinking, ‘It’s a power play,’ ” Eagan senior forward Tommy Nowariak said. “It’s a five-on-four in the zone, and if we just move the puck and get shots on net … that’s all we had to do pretty much.”
As they often do, the ‘Hail Mary’ plan fell short for the Raiders, as the Wildcats calmly and patiently moved it around, scoring six goals with the Hastings plan in motion.
The early scoring that led to the curveball in strategy was due in large part to Nowariak. He scored the Wildcats' first goal by posting up in the slot and burying a rebound just 1 minute, 40 seconds into the game.
His three points (1 goal, 2 assists) pushed his total points in the playoffs to eight, an impressive number for a forward who had only five in the regular season.
“Towards the beginning of the season I didn’t play much,” Nowariak explained. “I was playing on fourth line and all that. I worked my way up and worked hard every day in practice and every game when I got a chance.”
Put on a line with brothers Eric and Will Peterson, Nowariak has found sudden success and been a key piece of the Wildcats' run to the state tournament.
“Tommy Nowariak isn’t that fast but he works hard and he’s a tough kid -- he was a linebacker on our football team,” Eagan coach Mike Taylor said. “He’s not afraid to just get dirty. He just goes in front and bangs home goals or throws pucks in front. He’s the type of kid that competes and does all the little things.”
Affectionately nicknamed ‘gramps’ because, in the words of Taylor, “he skates like a grandpa,” Nowariak was understandably delighted about his role in the win.
“It’s beyond any words I can say,” Nowariak said. “Last year we obviously went to the state tournament too, but this year as a senior, I’m gonna remember it my whole life. It’s just a great experience overall.”
-- Walker Orenstein, MN Hockey Hub staff
Eagan's 10-1 victory over Hastings is tied for the largest in a Class 2A title game since 1990, when Bloomington Kennedy beat Minneapolis Southwest 11-1. Photo by Helen Nelson
Eagan senior Tommy Nowariak