Mounds View's Ryan Elvidge (37) battles Denfeld's Nick Thompson (20) for a loose puck (Photos by Tim Kolehmainen).
Mounds View goaltender Brandon Smith made 23 saves in Friday's victory.
Expectations around the Mounds View hockey program are as high as they’ve been in many years. So much so that many locals are asking if this is the year the Mustangs break a 35-year state tournament drought.
But with those dreams come the unthinkable possibility of not reaching them.
Mounds View coach Rick Thomas decided to meet them head on before its season-opening road trip to Duluth for games Friday, Nov. 23 against Duluth Denfeld and Saturday, Nov. 24 at Duluth Marshall. He gathered his team on the eve of the season to talk about their fears and how to deal with the pressure.
“They had a really good Bantam team, so a lot of their fears are meeting expectations,” said Thomas, whose seniors went 46-10-5 at the Bantam A level and came within a game of getting to the state tournament in 2009-10. “Around our community, this has been that group that everyone has been waiting to come through.”
For years, Section 4AA has been dominated by Hill-Murray and White Bear Lake, leaving the remaining schools to fight over the scraps. And there haven’t been many.
The Mustangs’ 14-11-1 record last year was its first winning season in nearly a decade. Mounds View hasn’t been to a state tournament since the Rob McClanahan days of the late 1970s. Often, its best players have found their way onto other schools’ rosters each season.
It sure didn’t seem to slow Mounds View down early in Friday night’s 3-2 victory over Duluth Denfeld at the Heritage Center in Duluth. Senior Darian Romanko scored a pair of first-period goals and the Mustangs were off and running. Between Thomas’ uplifting meeting and the closeness of the weekend road trip, Mounds View seemed to have it all figured out.
“Our guys really like (the trip),” said Thomas. “For us, it’s a great bonding thing. It’s a different experience to start the year – a different atmosphere, something new and maybe that helps us out, too.”
Nothing has come that easy for Mounds View hockey in the past three decades.
Tre Opack (18) and Steven Maciver (19) celebrate a Denfeld goal.
A pair of third-period power play goals from Denfeld’s Nick and Alex Thompson suddenly tied the score at 2-all and had the Mustangs’ reeling. The weight of expectations began to feel like a nightmare instead of a dream.
“We took some dumb, selfish penalties and let them back in the game,” said Thomas. “They made it a little nerve-racking on the bench, I’ll admit that.”
One person who wasn’t concerned was Romanko, who has seen the ups and downs through three varsity seasons.
“I didn’t have any worries,” said Romanko. “I thought we could still pull it off.”
So did linemate AJ Rupert, who assisted on both of Romanko’s first period goals. With just over two minutes remaining, Rupert gathered in a loose puck and skated up ice 1-on-2. Instead of dumping the puck at the end of his shift, though, Rupert rifled a low shot that eluded Denfeld goaltender Zach Thompson – and gave the Mustangs the victory.
“We for sure needed to win this one,” said Mustangs’ junior goaltender Brandon Smith, who was a first-year Bantam during that 2009-10 dream season and will be a big key to a state tournament run this winter. “With a win, we can go have some fun, bond a bit and keep it rolling.
“People are really hyping up this year, but I think we have the team that can back it up. I think this is the year for Mounds View.”
AJ Rupert scored with 2:08 remaining to give Mounds View a 3-2 victory over host Duluth Denfeld Friday night, Nov. 23 at the Heritage Center in Duluth. Rupert's goal helped the Mustangs (1-0-0) hold off a late rally by Denfeld (0-1-0), which trailed 2-0 entering the third period.
Rupert finished with a goal and two assists, picking up both helpers in the first period on a pair of goals from linemate Darian Romanko. Romanko's two first-period tallies helped the Mustangs jump on the Hunters early. Mounds View appeared in control until several key third-period penalties spurred a Denfeld rally.
Nick Thompson got Denfeld within a goal by tipping in a power play shot from Steven Maciver at 5:15 of the third. Alex Thompson tied it on a 5-on-3 power play just 5-1/2 minutes later.
Zach Thompson finished with 28 saves for Denfeld, while Brandon Smith stopped 21 shots for Mounds View.
1. AJ Rupert, Mounds View
Rupert saved the Mustangs the embarassment of blowing a late two-goal lead by netting the game-winner with just 2:08 remaining. At the end of his shift, Rupert rushed the puck into the Denfeld zone on a 1-on-2. But instead of dumping into the corner as he crossed the blue line, Rupert let fly with a low wrister that beat Denfeld goaltender Zach Thompson low glove side. He finished with a goal and two assists.
2. Darian Romanko, Mounds View
Romanko made sure Mounds View got off the bus with its game legs, netting a pair of first period goals that gave the Mustangs early momentum. Romanko's speed and chemistry with linemates AJ Rupert and Matt Hunt was evident all game long.
3. Nick Thompson, Duluth Denfeld
The sophomore defenseman -- and younger brother of Denfeld seniors Alex and Zach Thompson -- played huge minutes on the blue line, and they were effective minutes. He scored the Hunters' first goal on a tip and later assisted on the tying goal. Thompson also ripped a slapper at the buzzer that nearly tied the game again.