As Duluth Denfeld swarmed the glass in front of its student section following the postgame handshakes on Thursday, Levi Talarico grabbed a Hunters flag, brought it on the ice and waved it around.
After beating three of its biggest rivals this season, including Duluth Marshall in convincing fashion on Thursday night, waving the flag around on the Mars Lakeview Arena ice was kind of a symbolic moment for Talarico and his Hunter teammates.
The Hunters want everyone to know that they’re for real, and they’re here to stay.
“I’m a fourth generation at Denfeld, and to wave that Hunter pride out there is an awesome feeling,” Talarico said. “It was pretty unbelievable when we beat Hermantown, and then when we beat East we knew right away that we could play with any team.”
Yet, even after the wins against Hermantown and Duluth East, people outside the program questioned whether or not the Hunters were a legitimate threat, or if the upsets were just a product of a good game and strong efforts from key players.
People wondered, too, if Duluth Denfeld could keep the momentum going, or if the Hunters would fall off and settle into the middle of the pack.
Thursday night should quiet the critics.
The Hunters, now the ninth-ranked team in Class 1A, exploded offensively in a dominant 8-3 victory over crosstown rival Duluth Marshall, not only completing the Duluth-area hat trick of wins, but also all but assuring themselves the top-seed in the 7A tournament.
But the Hunters aren’t looking that far ahead. Instead, they want to focus on what’s worked to this point, and they want to make sure they stay at this level of play come sections.
“We’re trying to take it one game at a time, just like usual,” said coach Kevin Smalley.
Duluth Denfeld looked like a team ready for games of the win-or-go-home variety on Thursday night, especially in the second period, where the Hunters scored five times and held Duluth Marshall to almost no sustained zonetime.
A lot of the Hunters’ success offensively stemmed from the reunited duo of Talarico and Alex Thompson. Together, they possess a dynamic chemistry, where Talarico uses his speed while Thompson uses his size.
And they both know how to find each other and the back of the net.
“There’s no way in a million years I could play that well without [Thompson],” Talarico said. “Alex has great vision with and without the puck, and he gets it to the net. We were separated because teams were nailing down on us for a while, but now me and Alex are really connecting and playing well together.”
Smalley loves the talent and output from his top line, but it’s a collective effort that really makes him happy. Besides Thompson and Talarico, three other Duluth Denfeld players scored on Thursday, showing a good mix of talent up and down the lineup.
The Hunters have good size in players like Tre Opack and Reid Lemker, too, and Smalley has been making it an emphasis to his players that they utilize that size while being smart and clean in the process.
“The rules have changed and when the rules change everything changes for the big guys,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to stick to [their positioning] until they’re in the corner where the size matters. I think our bigger guys have really bought into that.
“If we keep playing hard and keep playing disciplined hockey and keep playing the way we need to play, that’s going to help us in the long run.”
Levi Talarico and Alex Thompson combined for five goals and 10 points while Zach Thompson made 37 saves to lead Duluth Denfeld to an 8-3 win over rival Duluth Marshall on Thursday, Jan. 31 at Mars Lakeview Arena in Duluth.
Three other Hunters – Reid Lemker, Tre Opack and Mathew Mattila – scored and defenseman Nick Thompson had three assists.
The teams traded goals in a back-and-forth first period, with Talarico and Alex Thompson scoring for Denfeld and Matthew Klassen scoring a pair of goals for Marshall to make it 2-all after 17 minutes.
But after that, it was all Hunters.
Mattila and Alex Thompson scored in the first 2 minutes, 44 seconds of the middle period to give Denfeld a two-goal lead. Lemker scored seven minutes later, and then Talarico netted a pair of late second-period goals to make it 7-2 after two.
Opack and the Hilltoppers’ Derek Farrell scored in the third to complete the scoring.
Caden Flaherty started in net for the ‘Toppers, but he was pulled after allowing three goals on 16 shots. Alex Murray stopped 23 shots in relief.
The 11th-ranked ‘Toppers (8-11-0) are back in action on Saturday afternoon when they travel to Eveleth-Gilbert.
No. 9 Duluth Denfeld (15-6-0) will play a rematch with Hermantown on Tuesday night in Hermantown.
1. Levi Talarico, Duluth Denfeld
From the first time he touched the puck until the final horn blew, Talarico was on fire. The senior forward scored three times, had three assists and was basically unstoppable.
2. Alex Thompson, Duluth Denfeld
Playing on a line with Talarico, Thompson was just as difficult to play against. The 6-foot, 190-pound senior scored a pair of goals, added two assists and used his size and strength to help the Hunters sustain pressure throughout the night.
3. Zach Thompson, Duluth Denfeld
It’s hard to get a lot of credit in an 8-3 win when you’re the guy between the pipes, but Thompson was solid once he settled in and made some spectacular saves to keep Marshall from starting any kind of comeback.