A stretch of games over six days against neighboring schools was an opportunity for the Buffalo boys’ hockey team to make a statement.
A 1-1 overtime tie Thursday, Dec. 10 against St. Michael-Albertville ended a successful three-game stretch which saw the Bison go undefeated (2-0-1) against Wright County Area schools.
“The past three games, we’ve been showing everyone in the state what type of team we are,” said Bison senior captain Kevin Kemp, referring back to a 4-2 home win over MAML and 3-2 road victory over Delano. “If we keep playing like we are, we’re going to make people turn their heads and make a difference in Minnesota high school hockey.”
Coming into this season, it was STMA that was turning heads, earning its first ever Mississippi 8 conference championship. The Knights earned their crown by sweeping two games from Buffalo, 6-5 in overtime at Buffalo, and 3-0 in the season finale at Albertville.
The two conference losses were the only two the Bison suffered all season (10-2-0). STMA posted an 11-1-0 conference mark.
“Last year’s game in Buffalo, it was one of the best high school games I’ve ever seen,” said STMA head coach Jerr Johnson, referring to the 6-5 overtime thriller. The Bison held a one-goal advantage in the Jan. 24 contest – five different times. But a goal in the final minutes of regulation forced overtime and STMA’s Tyler Hayes scored a highlight-reel goal in the extra session to win it.
In previous years, STMA was on the outside looking in as Buffalo and Rogers rivaled its way to the top of the conference standings. No team prior to last year had one the Mississippi 8 besides the Bison or Royals.
With an influx of talent that has surfaced in recent years, STMA has now become Buffalo’s top rival, and the Knights and their fans have embraced that role. STMA Arena last season was packed from wall-to-wall in the final game, and last Thursday’s contest at Buffalo Civic Center had a strong contingent from both fan bases – particularly on a night the Vikings were on prime time against the Arizona Cardinals.
“To be honest, this building gets so loud and when the band is here, it’s a great atmosphere for high school hockey,” Jerr Johnson said.
STMA junior forward Mitch Bourgerie got things started at 4:30 of the opening period when he took a pass from senior defenseman Brandon Berning and broke in free and fired a shot past Bison senior goalkeeper Ben Zitur.
Both teams fired seven shots on goal in the first period. Bourgerie’s goal would stand up until the 4:49 mark of the third period when a wild scramble in the goal crease resulted in Kemp knocking home the game-tying goal for the Bison.
“That goal was a perfect example of what our team is playing like,” Kemp said. “Everybody was going hard to the net and the puck just bounced out front. I just pumped it in and fell after the play. It was a battle goal by everyone. It was just a great goal to score.”
In a game that saw both teams take charge at certain points, Buffalo owned the shot advantage 30-18 at the time of Kemp’s goal. Things would change later in the third period as STMA had a number of good opportunities, including a shot with five minutes left that rung off the crossbar.
Unlike the past few meetings, which featured chippy play, and banter among fans, coaches, and players, this year’s meeting had more mutual respect.
“This was a much different game than the past couple years,” said Bison head coach Aaron Johnson. “It was much cleaner, it had high intensity, good skating from both teams. Both teams had moments where they had momentum and took control. Overall, it was just a really good hockey game.”
Only three penalties were whistled by referees with Buffalo going 0-2 on the power play and STMA 0-1.
STMA’s head coach felt like in games past, the referees would get caught up in the rivalry as well.
“Sometimes I feel like the refs, when it gets loud, get caught up, too. There’s a penalty call here and a penalty there,” Jerr Johnson said. “There were a few opportunities in this game on special teams, but what I liked most is the refs let us play. The game wasn’t chippy at all, it was just fast-passed hockey that was up-and-down. It was a well refed and well-played game.”
STMA controlled play for most of the eight-minute overtime session. Junior Carson Wooters had the best scoring chance early on, but Zitur stood tall making five quality saves in OT.
Buffalo’s head coach praised both goaltenders, afterwards.
“When you play a quality goalie like Hayden, you have to create traffic and get in his sight line, and create rebound chances,” Aaron Johnson said. “He stopped pretty much everything he could see. Ben did the same for us. His game has really raised the last week. I think he wasn’t very happy with his first couple games. The last week or so he’s been dialed in and played very well for us.”
The Bison (2-2-1, 1-0-1 M8) are next in action with a 7 p.m. road game Thursday, Dec. 17 at St. Francis. The Knights (2-1-2, 1-0-1 M8) are next in action with a 7 p.m. home game Dec. 17 against Rogers. STMA is coming off a 2-1 home victory Saturday, Dec. 12 over No. 3 rated (Class AA) Duluth East. It’s the first time in school history the Knights have defeated the Greyhounds.
Jerr Johnson said this year is the toughest schedule ever for Knights hockey.
“By far our toughest,” he said. “We had games already with Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Roseau, and Duluth East. We also have Moorhead and Holy Family. It’s been our goal for many years to play the best teams. We’ve been fortunate enough the past few years to win some games, and all of a sudden those teams are more willing to play us.”
As for round two Feb. 6 against Buffalo…”We play one more time,” Jerr Johnson said. “That game may come down for section and conference implications in our barn, so we like that positive.”
Not looking that far ahead, Buffalo is feeling good about their play, particularly the past week.
“We’re getting better each day,” Aaron Johnson said. “I don’t think the guys are satisfied with the results of a tie, but they’re satisfied with the effort. This is back-to-back strong games against two really quality opponents.
Buffalo 1, St. Michael-Albertville 1, OT
(Thursday, Dec. 10 at Buffalo)
Knights1 0 0 0 - 1
Bison0 0 1 0 - 1
First period: STMA -- Mitchell Bourgerie (Brandon Berning) 4:30.
Second period: No scoring.
Third period: B -- Kevin Kemp (Brady Hartman, Cade Stensby) 4:49.
Overtime: No scoring.
Goalies: STMA – Kyle Hayden (tie) 35 shots, 34 saves; B – Ben Zitur (tie) 29 shots, 28 saves. Shots: STMA – 7-8-9-5 – 29; B – 7-13-12-3 – 35. Power Plays: STMA – 0-1; B – 0-2.