After skating to a 4-3-0 record in its first seven games, Duluth Denfeld was eager to turn things around. The Hunters knew they were better, but they had to get to their game.
In its next nine games, Duluth Denfeld made a statement.
The Hunters racked up an 8-1-0 record during that stretch. They beat two teams – Hermantown and Duluth East – that they hadn’t beaten in a while. They went 3-0-0 against section 7A opponents, including a 5-1 win against Hibbing/Chisholm on Tuesday, Jan. 15.
That’s more like what the Hunters had in mind.
“We’re trying to prove to everyone that we’re here to stay,” said senior goaltender Zach Thompson. “It’s starting to show through that we’re a good team. The guys are starting to buy in.”
Buying into systems and the attitude needed to be a successful team is never an easy task for coaches, but coach Kevin Smalley has managed to do just that.
Of course, it helps when a team has the kind of leadership that the Hunters have, too. Duluth Denfeld boasts a roster with eight seniors, some of which have been playing varsity hockey for four or five season.
“Our seniors have been around for a while and they show up at the rink every day to work hard,” Smalley said. “When you bring that high level to practice everyday, you bring that to games. Things have gone our way, and it’s nice when things go the way they have. It really comes from those 20 guys that show up and work hard everyday, and the guys believe that they can win.”
That hard work has resulted in Duluth Denfeld putting itself in the position to claim the top-seed in 7A, which can be had with a win in a Jan. 31 game against crosstown rival Duluth Marshall.
Smalley isn’t ready to talk section playoffs just yet, but he knows that the confidence and progress of the Hunters through this point in the season can only help them come playoff time.
“Every game is important for us, it doesn’t matter who we play right now,” Smalley said. “We kind of came out from being a sleeper into a team that people are starting to recognize, but we have a long way to go. It’s a process, and we want to be there in the end.”
Thompson is quick to admit that he and his teammates are focused on the next game on the schedule, too, but he isn’t afraid to mention that the Hunters have their sights set pretty high.
“We’ve beat some pretty good teams, and we think we have what it takes to get [to the state tournament],” Thompson said. “We believe that we’re the team to beat in the section, and we’re looking forward to that showdown with Marshall.”
A four-goal first period proved to be more than enough cushion for Duluth Denfeld on Tuesday, Jan. 15, in a 5-1 win over section 7A rival Hibbing/Chisholm at the Heritage Sports Center in Duluth.
Levi Talarico scored twice before the game was four minutes old, then, after Hibbing pulled to within a goal, Alex Thompson and Tre Opack scored to give the Hunters a 4-1 lead after the first period.
The game evened out after the first, and the score remained the same until Opack scored his second of the night 56 seconds into the final period.
Reid Lemker had three points – all assists – while teammate Steven Maciver had a pair of helpers for the Hunters. Goaltender Zach Thompson made 17 stops in the win.
The Bluejackets were without leading scorer Adam Johnson, who was out with an illness, and got their lone goal from Colten Perkins.
Tyler Carlson made 28 saves in net for Hibbing.
The Hunters (12-4-0) are off until Saturday when they play Cloquet/Esko/Carlton at AMSOIL Arena in Duluth as part of the annual Perkins Frenzy.
Hibbing (8-8-1) will make back-to-back trips to Grand Rapids this week, playing the Thunderhawks on Thursday night before squaring off with Eagan on Saturday morning in the opening game of Hockey Day Minnesota on Lake Pokegama.
1. Levi Talarico, Duluth Denfeld
Talarico was on fire to begin the game, scoring twice on his first two shifts. Those goals ended up being enough for the Hunters to lock up a giant section victory.
2. Tre Opack, Duluth Denfeld
Opack had a pair of goals and added an assist, thanks largely to his strength on the puck. His second goal – which game on a late first-period power play – might have been the one that took the wind out of Hibbing’s sails for good.
3. Reid Lemker, Duluth Denfeld
Lemker was in full playmaker mode tonight, registering three helpers. His first two – which came on Talarico’s goals – were pretty passes through traffic and onto Talarico’s stick in the slot.