Hermantown's Zach Kramer threads a shot between Totino-Grace's Derek Lodermeier, left, and Matt Olson and over the catching glove of goaltender Rory Davidowski for a third-period goal. Photo by Loren Nelson
Hermantown has been a team that can score at will this season.
The Hawks average 6.71 goals per game and have scored five or more goals 12 times.
Those are impressive numbers, but Hawks players will tell you it is just as important to keep pucks out of their net.
The No. 5-ranked (Class 1A) Hawks' past five games have exemplified their committment to team defense. They have allowed a combined three goals in that span.
Hermantown displayed its stingy, gritty defense once again in a 4-0 victory against No. 3 Totino-Grace on Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Brooklyn Park Community Center.
"They are tough back there," Eagles' coach Mark Loahr said. "There are a lot of big boys on their defense, and they play really well back there."
Defense wasn't always a strength for the Hawks.
Hermantown's Neal Pionk, left, blocks the puck and Totino-Grace's Derek Lodermeier. Photo by Loren Nelson
At one point Hermantown coach Bruce Plante decided it was time to squeeze in some extra skating drills to deliver a message that his team's defensive effort wasn't cutting it.
"There were a few (practices) that were not a lot of fun, but we got it back on track," he said. "It was a little bump in the road that every team has, so we just had to push through that, and we are doing it at the right time of the season."
Totino-Grace witnessed first hand what Hermantown's defense is all about.
The Eagles were only able to put 20 shots on goal, which included four in the third period.
Totino-Grace offensive stars such as T.J. Roo, Carter Roo and Derek Lodermeier were not able to generate the sort of scoring opportunities typically associated with the state's No. 3-ranked team.
Instead there was clogged passing lanes, defensemen making perfect body checks at the blue line and, in the rare case of an odd-man rush, the Hawks typically found a way to defend it flawlessly.
"We had a wake-up call a few weeks ago," senior defenseman Jake Zeleznikar said. "We were not playing really good on defense, so Coach Plante had us practice pretty hard to send us a message that we had to get it going.
"We have always had pride in our defense and now we are starting to play like we have before."
Hermantown senior forward Chris Benson scored twice in the Hawks' win over Totino-Grace. Photo by Loren Nelson
The Hawks are loaded with quality players on the blue line, which gives Plante the flexibility to toss any defensive pairing out on the ice knowing that it will work.
Zeleznikar is one of the three senior defensemen who are on the ice regularly for Hermantown.
Christian Wasbotten and Joe Muehlbauer are the other two that lead the big, veteran group.
Muehlbauer stands the tallest at 6-foot-4, while Zeleznikar is 6-foot-2 and Wasbotten 5-foot-10.
Hermantown also has junior Neal Pionk, a Minnesota-Duluth recruit who is not only a force defensively but chips in with offense, too.
Pionk scored a power play goal in the second period when he ripped a snapshot from the point that beat Eagles' goalie Rory Davidowski in the upper right corner.
"That was just a nice shot," Plante said. "We had a great screen set up there, but Pionk just drilled it, and I am not sure if their goalie would have gotten it if he had a clear look at it."
The Hawks defensemen are not shy about jumping into the offense.
On the power play it is not rare that the weak-side defenseman will sneak into the slot to give Hermantown yet another scoring option.
It does not work all the time, and if done too much a team becomes vulnerable.
"I am fine with them doing it when we get good control of the puck," Plante said. "It's not good when we don't have full control and leave our other guys out to dry."
The scrappy, gritty play has even filtered over to the offense for Hermantown.
Hawks senior Chris Benson scored two goals against the Eagles. He crashed to the front of the net for his second goal.
After Davidowski made a save on a shot from the left circle, the puck was sitting in the crease until Benson skated in from the slot to knock the puck in.
"I just saw it there and was going to do anything I could to put it in," Benson said. "We need as many goals as we can against a good team, so you have to do what you can."
"He been scoring a lot of big goals for us this year," Plante said. "He is a big, strong kid and is the captain of our team for a reason, and it's really nice to see him having a really good season."
Benson's offensive output over the Eagles was another strong showing on the scoresheet for Hermantown, but the success of late has been the team defense.
"We have won lately because of our hard work in our own zone," Benson said. "We have guys blocking shots, backchecking and our defense is really helping is get the puck out with breakouts and even scoring goals."
"Right now we are playing pretty good and might be doing better late in the season than we were last season," Zeleznikar said. "We might not have played our best hockey late in the year last year defensively, but we seem to be on the right track now and just beat a really good hockey team."
Hermantown's Chris Benson scored two goals and the No. 5-ranked (Class 1A) Hawks' stifling defense allowed only 20 shots on goal in a 4-0 victory over No. 3 (Class 1A) Totino-Grace 4-0 on Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Brooklyn Park Community Center.
Benson scored his first goal on the power play in the first period when he took a pass from Travis Koepke in front of the Eagles net. Benson made a move to his right and buried a shot by Rory Davidowski.
Neal Pionk put Hermantown up 2-0 in the second when he ripped a slapshot from the point that beat Davidowski in the upper right corner.
Benson put away his second goal when he tapped in a loose puck that was in the crease after Davidowski made a save from a sharp angle on a Pionk shot.
Benson has 22 goals and is the Hawks' second-leading scorer..
Zach Kramer concluded the scoring when he fired in a one-timer from the slot on a feed from Bo Gronseth.
The Hawks' team defense was it strength against Totino-Grace.
On top of only giving up 20 shots, it had to kill off 5-on-3 in the second period and after limited the Eagles to few scoring chances.
Hermantown locked down even more in the third, giving up four shots on goal.
Adam Smith records the shutout for the Hawks and is now holds a 9-0-1 record.
Davidowski faced 38 shots on goal and made 34 saves.
Hermantown improves to 16-4-1 and will host Duluth Denfeld on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
The Eagles drop 15-4-1 and will play section 4A foe Mahtomedi on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at the St. Croix Valley Recreation Center.
1. Chris Benson, Hermantown
The senior forward had two goals and was an offensive threat all afternoon. Benson opened the scoring in the first period on the power play where he made a quick deke to his right to beat Rory Davidowski. He showed his grit with his second goal when he charged to the net for a loose puck and dove on the ice to knock it in.
2. Neal Pionk, Hermantown
Not only did the junior defenseman play stingy defense, he also scored a goal on the power play and assisted on Benson's second goal. Pionk's power-play goal was a blast from the point that beat Davidowski in the upper right corner.
3. Jake Zeleznikar, Hermantown
Another member of the Hawks' strong defensive corps, Zeleznikar was solid at both ends of the rink. He stood up Eagles' forwards when they attempted to enter the zone, and he was methodical in moving the puck up the ice on the breakout. The senior also assisted on Benson's first period goal.