It’s tourney time.
With the state boys’ hockey tournament Thursday through Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center, No. 1 seed Lakeville North (28-0) will face the random draw Hill-Murray Pioneers (21-7) in the quarterfinals.
The matchup Thursday at 6 pm between the Panthers and Pioneers won’t be the first time these two teams will have met this year. The two squads faced off on December 23 at Aldrich Arena, the home of the Pioneers. Despite a late surge from Hill-Murray in that game, the Panthers hung on to win 4-3 before the Holiday weekend.
While this game was just over two months ago, it provides a glimpse of what Thursday’s result may be.
Those who weren’t at the game may think this was a close game, but the final score doesn’t indicate the Panthers’ prowess over the Pioneers in this game. Both Lakeville North head coach Trent Eigner and Jack Sadek admit that Lakeville North’s mistakes allowed the Pioneers to get back into the game after the Panthers led 3-1 heading into the third period.
“I don’t think we played our best hockey that game,” Sadek said. “We just need to play simple hockey and reduce the mistakes we made from the first game.”
Perhaps the biggest mistake the Panthers made in that game was letting up in the third. Lakeville North outplayed Hill-Murray for most of the first and second period, but in the third, I didn’t see the same energy and drive I saw in the first two periods. The Panthers played undisciplined defense, uncharacteristic for Lakeville North which features two Division-I defenders in Sadek and Jack McNeely.
From the players who I’ve spoken with, they know they can’t lose focus like that again come Thursday.
A powerful power play
Scoring one goal off the power play is considered a solid night on special teams. But a 50 percent conversion rate isn’t a common occurrence for most teams.
But, the Panthers converted on two of four power play opportunities in the game, which ultimately led to the demise of the Pioneers. The game had a natural flow to it in the first period with no penalties assessed on either squad. But in the second, each team spent a fair amount of time in the box.
Sophomore Henry Enebak started off the scoring as he fired a shot from the circle to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead in the second period. Nick Poehling would also later score a power play goal.
If Lakeville North can get Hill-Murray to spend time in the box, it will be an uphill battle for the Pioneers at the Xcel Energy Center as long as the Panthers find the same level of success on the power play as they did at Aldrich.
Underwhelming Pioneer goaltending
While the Hill-Murray defense showcases some of the state’s best defenders, including Jacob Olson, 2015 Senior Defenseman of the Year, the Panthers didn’t struggle to find offensive success in December. Scoring four goals and peppering Hill-Murray goaltender Sam Wendlant with 39 shots, Lakeville North felt they could have scored even more against Wendlant and the stout Pioneers defense.
The Pioneers net minder struggled at times to see the puck after the initial shot and was sometimes out of position, best shown when Enebak scored his goal in the second.
After finding success against Wendlant in December, Lakeville North will once again look to put a plethora of shots on net, Thursday, in Wendlant’s first state tournament appearance in net.
“[Hill-Murray] has an inexperienced goalie playing so we just need to shoot the puck because we know he will be a little shakey in front of that many people,” Sadek said.
Fundamentals key for Lakeville North
Panthers head coach Trent Eigner voiced the opinion that Lakeville North’s mistakes kept Hill-Murray in the game because Lakeville North’s fundamentals weren’t always flawless.
If the Panthers stick to their game of high speed offense led by the Poehling brothers and strong defense from Division-I defenders such as Sadek and McNeely, it will be tough for the Pioneers to deny Lakeville North the victory, Thursday.
“When you play games like this, the details really come to the forefront, whether it’s a face-off or it’s a lost assignment in the defensive zone,” Eigner said after the victory over Hill-Murray. “Those things are critical.”