Hill-Murray's Conrad Sampair (15) celebrates after scoring the game-tying goal midway through the Pioneers' 2-1 overtime victory against Moorhead. Photo by Helen Nelson.
Michael Bitzer was a riddle that seemed unsolvable.
Through more than five periods of state tournament action – 94 minutes, 58 seconds to be exact – the cool and collected Moorhead goaltender turned aside every shot he had seen.
Fifty-four pucks gobbled up.
Rebounds, one-timers, screened shots. It didn’t matter. Bitzer stumped all.
Good thing for Hill-Murray, Conrad Sampair had the answer.
The crafty senior forward broke Bitzer’s streak – and Moorhead’s heart – with two late goals to give the Pioneers (24-6-0) a 2-1 overtime victory in the Class 2A semifinals Friday, March 9 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The victory propelled Hill-Murray into its 10th state championship game Saturday night.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing high school hockey,” a shocked Sampair said after the game. “But going to the championship game, I never thought I’d get this close.”
The Pioneers will attempt to win their fourth title after claiming crowns in 1983 and 1991 in the single-class tournament and 2008 in Class 2A. Yet if not for Sampair, there would have been no joy in Pioneer-ville.
Conrad Sampair (15) scored twice in Hill-Murray's 2-1 victory over Moorhead. Photo by Helen Nelson.
Just one minute, 51 seconds into overtime, Sampair used his speed to beat the Spuds’ defense wide. He cut sharply back towards the crease from Bitzer’s left. Shrugging off a check, Sampair slid the puck under Bitzer’s pads.
While goal judge initially flicked the red light on, the referee on the play waved the goal off. Perhaps he was in disbelief that Bitzer had been beaten twice – both times by Sampair.
“I only saw if out of the corner of my eye,” Sampair admitted, not quite sure it had gone in either. “Part of me was ready to get out there again and put another one in the back (of the net).”
“The other part of me was thinking it was a goal.”
Sampair, who finished just seventh on the Pioneers in scoring during the year, didn’t need to prove his goal-scoring prowess again, however. After a short video replay, referees signaled the obvious goal. And the Pioneers charged the ice in celebration.
At the center was the unlikely goal-scoring hero.
“What I’m most proud of – like Conrad said earlier -- is that somebody different has been stepping up for a while,” Pioneers coach Bill Lechner said. “It’s hard to shut down (everybody). There’s always somebody else who seems to rise to the occasion.”
When Cody Rahman gave the Spuds (22-7-0) a 1-0 lead midway through the first period, it appeared that might be all Bitzer and Moorhead would need. The game remained a one-goal Spuds lead deep into the third until Bitzer made his first – and only – mistake of the tournament.
Charlie Sampair, Conrad’s cousin and a Mr. Hockey finalist, ripped a bad-angle shot that hit Bitzer in the crest of his jersey. Instead of being absorbed into Bitzer’s pads like every other shot to that point, the puck deflected into the low slot. Conrad Sampair jumped all over it, poking in the game-tying goal with 7 minutes, 2 seconds remaining.
“One bad rebound and it cost us late in the game,” Bitzer explained. “(Maybe) if I hold that one, we hold on longer in the game.”
It’s hard to fault Bitzer, whom Moorhead coach Dave Morinville suggested might have had to skate it up and score himself to jump start the Spuds’ offense at that point. Over the final 20 minutes of the game, Moorhead had just one shot on goal – and none after Sampair’s tying goal.
-- Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA
Conrad Sampair (15) scored two goals dished out several thundering hits against Moorhead, including one on Thomas Carey. Photo by Helen Nelson
Senior forward Conrad Sampair embraces his role as Hill-Murray’s team clown.
“I’m always smiling,” Sampair said. “When people are not happy about things, I’ll find a way to do something crazy.”
He did the improbable in Friday’s Class 2A state tournament semifinal, beating stellar Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer twice as the Pioneers escaped with a 2-1 overtime victory.
Sampair scored off a rebound to tie the game in the third period. He flashed some speed and deft hands on the game-winner. Coming hard to Bitzer’s left, Sampair coasted through the goal mouth and scored so fast officials went to replay to confirm it counted.
“He had a good night,” said Bitzer, one of two finalists for the Frank Brimsek Award given to the state’s outstanding senior goalie. “I opened up just enough and he just slid it past me.”
The goal produced elation to equal the Pioneers’ frustration in the second period. They took charge of the game, outshooting Moorhead 10-5 but found Bitzer equal to the task. Hill-Murray beat Bitzer and the Spuds 6-1 in the regular season finale but Pioneers coach Bill Lechner expected a much different rematch.
Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner. Photo by Helen Nelson
“People said it would be a cakewalk but I said, ‘No way,’ ” Lechner said. “It was going to be a one-goal game.”
Moorhead took a lead at 7:34 of the first period as Cody Rahman tipped in a shot from the point by Jacob Uglem. From there, however, the Spuds experienced their own offensive woes. Hill-Murray couldn't solve Bitzer but the Spuds were hardly testing the Pioneers’ John Dugas.
“We quit skating,” Moorhead coach Dave Morinville said. “I felt like I had to have Bitzer score a goal, too.”
While Moorhead got off track late, Sampair needed time to get comfortable.
“He was struggling early,” Lechner said. “I had a talk with him about the 10-minute mark and told him, ‘You are a senior and this is your time. Don’t get down or frustrated. This is your moment. Go live it.’”
On the next shift, Sampair put away a rebound of cousin Charlie Sampair’s wrist shot. Charlie is Conrad’s linemate and one of 10 finalists for Mr. Hockey. The two kid each other behind the scenes about their comparative status. On Friday, they carried the second line and helped overwhelm Moorhead.
Hill-Murray’s speed and urgency had the Spuds reeling. Morinville felt his guys were playing not to lose as the game wore on. Turnovers resulted in Hill-Murray rushes, which eventually resulted in Sampair’s goal.
-- David La Vaque, Star Tribune staff writer
After each whistle, Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer paced around the ice.
Skating wide circles near the bottom of the faceoff circles he drifted, staring at the ice with intensity.
As the second and third periods wore on in Hill-Murray’s 2-1 overtime victory, each save by the senior became increasingly more impressive than the last.
A leg pad here, a flash of the leather there.
Bitzer held on as Hill-Murray forwards crashed into the net, throwing the pipes off their hinges.
The pressure of six straight periods of shutout hockey seemed to be mounting in the Xcel Energy Center as Bitzer kept the Pioneers scoreless, similar to the type of nervous energy found in a crowd witnessing a no-hitter in baseball.
The captain of the Moorhead ship, the Frank Brimsek award finalist stayed calm in the face of adversity, steering the Spuds through stretches of play where they were so dominated, they couldn’t even muster a shot the other way.
“I just try to be calm because you don’t want to be an emotional rollercoaster, up and down too much,” Bitzer said. “Just wanna be the same throughout the whole game.”
True to form, Bitzer was the same during the game as he had been throughout the season.
Finally, in the third period, Bitzer cracked. Conrad Sampair pounced on a rebound, breaking the spell that Bitzer had placed over the Pioneers.
With the streak broken, things unraveled for Moorhead, who lost when Sampair scored another in the first overtime.
When all was said and done, Bitzer had made 25 saves compared to Hill-Murray goaltender John Dugas’ 14, finishing a memorable performance with a sour ending.
“I felt we had to have Bitzer score the goals besides stop them,” Moorhead coach Dave Morinville said after the game. “He’s been great. True athlete, works his rear end off. I’ll miss him. We’ve got one game left together and hopefully it’ll be a great one.”
Although his team was beat, Bitzer focused on the positives, realizing that a loss was no way to end his career with the Spuds.
“Third place banner looks a lot better than the fourth place banner,” he said.
-- Walker Orenstein, MN Hockey Hub staff
John Dugas faced only 12 shots in front of a stingy Hill-Murray defense, but he saved 11 of them. Photo by Helen Nelson.
For two seasons Hill-Murray goalie John Dugas was in a shadow.
A big one at that.
He had to backup Tim Shaughnessy, who started in net for the Pioneers for three seasons.
So cracking the starting job was going to have to wait for Dugas and with Hill-Murray just one win away from the Class 2A state championship, it may be worthwhile.
"We're very proud of him," Pioneers coach Bill Lechner said. "Backed up Tim Shaugnessy and he happened to be the goalie for three years and John had to backup for two years.
"That's a lot to ask and stick with it."
After only appearing in five games a year ago, Dugas started 24 in the regular season and has played every minute of the section playoffs and state tournament.
He will go into the championship game with an 18-5-1 record, 2.15 goals-against-average and a save percentage of .907.
"I had to prepare myself with a lot of hard work," Dugas said of his offseason workload. "A lot of mental training to go along with physical training. I attest it to the hard work I put in the offseason to be prepared."
All that hard work did not appear it was going to pay off to well as the Pioneers came out of the gate with an 0-2-0 record.
On top of having a new goalie, Hill-Murray had to restructure its lineup as there were early departures to juniors and transfers.
The defensive corp suffered the most. It only returning player was Blake Heinrich.
It may be hard to believe, but the Pioneers needed someone to be a rock and Dugas stepped up.
"Early, obviously a learning curve because there's a difference between playing a few games as a backup goalie to being the starter," Lechner said. " We are one of many programs that gets watched pretty close, puts a little pressure, but he's handled it very well."
With the confidence instilled by his coach, Dugas has been able to settle into the role of playing a position that garners more pressure than arguably any other in sports.
Yet, there are no nerves in his game, even on the big stage.
"Anytime people put confidence in you, especially your head coach, it makes you feel good about yourself," Dugas said. "When you're out there it allows you to just think nothing else matters because people here believe in you."
In two state tournament games Dugas shut down second-seeded Maple Grove and was able to replicate that in the semifinals against Moorhead by only giving up one early goal.
To imagine that after the first two games, Hill-Murray is now one win away from its first state title since 2008.
It is Dugas that has been the model of consistency throughout the year, which kept the Pioneers afloat early, when Hill-Murray needed him the most.
"I just got a lot of confidence in myself as the season went on," Dugas said. "We play a lot of great teams through the season and it helps you get used to this level pretty fast."
--Justin Magill, MN Hockey Hub Staff
Senior forward Conrad Sampair’s goal at 1 minute, 51 seconds of overtime on Friday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul lifted Hill-Murray to a 2-1 semifinal victory over Moorhead and a spot in Saturday's state Class 2A championship game.
Both teams were unseeded, and Hill-Murray (24-6-0) finished the regular season ranked No. 9, one spot ahead of Moorhead.
Sampair's goal broke a 1-1 tie that was forged when Sampair popped in a rebound with 7:02 to play in the third period.
Sampair entered the state tournament with 10 goals and ranked seventh on the Pioneers in points with 21 while playing in the shadow of his cousin, Mr. Hockey finalist Charlie Sampair.
Moorhead (22-7-0) got on the board at 7:34 of the first on a goal from Cody Rahman.
The loss spoiled a terrific outing by the Spuds’ Michael Bitzer, a Frank Brimsek award finalist who made 25 saves – many in acrobatic fashion.
-- Star Tribune and MN Hockey Hub staff
1. Conrad Sampair, Hill-Murray
Sampair was wicked good all night, wheeling and dealing all over the offensive zone. He took a beating to make plays, laid a beating to stop them and ended up playing the hero role for the Pioneers. The senior forward buried a rebound late in the third to force overtime, then made the individual play of the tournament with an end-to-end rush that finished with him sliding a puck through Michael Bitzer’s five-hole.
2. Michael Bitzer, Moorhead
Fresh off his outstanding effort in the quarterfinals against Eagan, it looked like Bitzer was ready for an encore. For the better part of 50 minutes, he was. Unfortunately, Bitzer’s only two mistakes ended up being the difference in the hockey game. Even so, it shouldn’t overshadow his numerous game-changing saves, steady play and cool demeanor. The senior finalist for the Frank Brimsek award finished with 25 saves.
3. Blake Heinrich, Hill-Murray
If Bitzer is becoming known as this tournament’s brick wall, Heinrich is without a doubt its bulldozer. The junior defenseman absolutely changed the course of the game by laying a pair of giant hits in the first period, taking Moorhead off its game while giving the Pioneers energy. If Heinrich doesn’t lay down the law early, the Spuds might have been a different team tonight.
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff
Class 2A Tournament
Section 4AA Playoffs
Class 2A Tournament
Section 8AA Playoffs