Sharing is not something White Bear Lake was in the mood to do.
All it needed to do was beat Roseville at home in the final Suburban East Conference (SEC) game of the season and the title was all its own.
There was some extra work needed to be done and Max Birkinbine finished the job with three minutes, 37 seconds left in overtime to give the Bears a 1-0 win against the Raiders and the SEC championship on Feb 17 at the Vadnais Heights Sports Complex (VHSC).
“Speechless,” Birkinbine said after the game. “That’s it.”
He may be right because words may not be able to describe the final seconds of overtime.
Alex Hultman rang a shot off the post for Roseville. He had his arms raised, but the referees immediately waived it off.
“It sank your heart a little bit,” Mac Jansen said. “When you don’t hear a whistle or a ref signal for a goal, you just keep playing.”
“We went right back at them,” Brandon Wahlin said. “It was a good thing we did.”
It was Wahlin, who not only had an abundance of shots on net, but quality scoring chances on Raiders goalie Nick Lehr, who set up Birkinbine on a two-on-one, right after Hultman’s shot was ruled a no-goal.
Wahlin, the speedy, offensive juggernaut for the Bears, was patient while entering the Raiders zone, waited for Birkinbine to crash the post and fluttered a beautiful pass for an easy back-door, conference clinching goal.
Within seconds, the Bears bench cleared to celebrate with Birkinbine and the nearly packed VHSC erupted in excitement.
It did not end there as the locker room hallways were filled with echoed screams of enjoyment by the Bears. When the whole team filed into the locker room, a celebration of their own began when music was turned up to maximum volume and it was clear which team won the SEC title.
“It is just a great feeling,” Wahlin said. “We have the title and it’s all ours and we just wanted our name on it. Nobody elses.”
Ultimately, this was a game White Bear Lake needed if it didn’t want the Ponies, its conference rivals, to have their hands on the SEC championship, too. Stillwater defeated Hastings 2-1 on Feb. 17 to improve its conference record to 14-2-2 for 30 points, which was just shy of what White Bear Lake posted, 15-1-2 and 32 points.
“We didn’t want to split it with anyone else,” Jansen said. “It means something when you do it by yourself and we talked about it before the game on how we didn’t want to share this with Stillwater.”
A loss and a Stillwater win against Hastings would have meant the SEC championship would be split for the second consecutive season.
Last year Cretin-Derham Hall, Forest Lake and Woodbury tied for the conference lead.
Stillwater closed the gap in the conference standings with a 4-3 win at the VHSC on Feb. 5 in the closing minutes when a harmless wrist shot by Cody Corbett somehow found the back of the net and put the first blemish on the Bears conference record.
Lehr was on pace to do the same to White Bear Lake. The senior did just about everything he could for the Raiders, turning away 45 shots. It did not deter the Bears from being aggressive in the latter stages of the game, knowing all they needed was just a tie, but a win on their home rink would be that much sweeter.
“It’s a championship and it’s all their own,” Bears coach Tim Sager said. “This is special and something our guys are proud of. They didn’t want anything to do with splitting it and they played like they wanted to win it tonight.”
Even more special is the fact that White Bear Lake won it in the final conference game of the season at home in the inaugural season of its new home rink.
Instead of playing at Aldrich Arena, the former home of the Bears where they shared it with Hill-Murray, White Bear Lake created something unique that will last a long time.
“This is a win they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Sager said. “This is their rink and on the final night of the conference season, they won it. I am just so proud of them and the coaches for this.”
“It’s just nice to do something like this and not see green and black,” Jansen added. “We have our rowdy fans here in our own place. It is just more special that way.”
For the Bears, 11 seniors are now part of a team that opened a new facility in one of the best ways possible. They celebrated a conference championship on their own rink during the last week of the season and in quite dramatic fashion.
“Doesn’t get much better than that,” Wahlin said. “Our own rink, our colors and our fans. It was a perfect time to do it.”
“There have been a lot of great people and players in this program over the years that worked hard and didn’t get one of these because of maybe an unlucky bounce here or there,” Sager said. “Those guys in there worked for everything they have and that is why this is so special.”
If White Bear Lake would have just tied, it would have locked the SEC title as well.
However, it played like a desperate team needing a win and was extremely aggressive from the drop of the puck.
“They just wanted to win the game,” Sager said. “It means so much to them to win a conference championship that anything but a win tonight would have felt a lot different, even if they did end up having it on their own.”
White Bear Lake had its first two lines out frequently in the latter stages of the game, giving the Bears their best shot of taking down Roseville.
“We wanted this one bad and didn’t want to take a chance at a tie,” Jansen said. “Our attitude from the start was to do everything to win the game.”
The big stars played like it, too.
Jansen used his size and strength to get scoring chances for the Bears. He put his shoulder down, drove to the net and put the puck on net anyway he could.
Wahlin fired at will from everywhere on the ice. Can’t blame him with his quick release and heavy shot.
And there was Birkinbine, who set up opportunities by cycling the puck, using the Bears defensemen who were often times wide open and of course, putting away his 13th goal of the season.
“It means a lot to us win,” Birkinbine said. “We only had one loss in conference and that was the difference.”
That loss was to rival Stillwater on Feb. 5 4-3. It added some spark to a team that has not had a lot of defeats in the past month and a half.
“I think that loss motivated us, “ Jansen said. “It showed us that we have to work hard in every second of the game, even when we are dominating a team.”
White Bear Lake needed to work on every shift because Roseville was inches away from having the tables turned.
"I thought we played a great game," Raiders coach Jeff Pauletti said. "That is just a great team over there and we needed just a little more. Both teams had a lot of effort and will need to play this way when sections come along."
Max Birkinbine scored with three minutes, 37 seconds left in overtime to give White Bear Lake a 1-0 win on Feb. 17 against Roseville, but more important, a conference championship.
He put home a two-on-one rush with a great pass by Brandon Wahlin.
Nick Lehr finished with 45 saves on the night, but it was not enough for the Raiders. He was under fire for most of the night and as the game progressed, so did the pressure by the Bears.
The only goal that would pass him took nearly a perfect play by the Bears best players.
Jared Schletty was solid in net stopping all 22 shots he faced.
Birkinbine scored his 13th goal of the season and has had contributed nicely on the scoresheet for the Bears during the last month of the regular season.
Earlier this season, Wahlin had a hat trick in the Bears 5-3 win against the Raiders. He now has four points in two game against them.
Roseville will drop to 11-8-5 (9-7-2) and will host Rochester Century on Feb. 19.
White Bear Lake will have a nonconference game against Cloquet less than 24 hours from its big win against the Raiders. Cloquet visits the Bears on Feb. 18.
With the win, the Bears improve to 17-5-2 (15-1-2) on the season and will most likely lock the No. 2 seed in Section 4AA behind arch rival Hill-Murray.
1. Max Birkinbine, White Bear Lake
Anytime you score an overtime winner that gives your team a conference title, the top start belongs to you. Birkinbine put away his 13th goal of the year in the final SEC home game of the season at the Bears new rink to give them the conference crown.
2. Nick Lehr, Roseville
If his team wins, no doubt he is the best player. Lehr did just about everything he could to give the Raiders an upset win against White Bear Lake. It took a perfect setup by the Bears better players to get one by Lehr, who had 45 saves on the evening.
3. Brandon Wahlin, White Bear Lake
If it wasn't for the play of Lehr, there might not have been overtime and Wahlin would have had his second hat trick of the season against the Raiders. He had countless chances to score and constantly got his team out of trouble by keeping Roseville trapped in its own zone. Wahlin's assist to Birkinbine in overtime was a thing of beauty.