Boys' hockey: Snakebitten no longerThe Card boys' hockey team returns to the state tournament for the first time since 1996.
The Cardinal boys’ hockey team knows all too well the feeling of coming up just short in a section final game.
Alexandria reached, but never advanced past, the section championship three out of the last four seasons. Last year was especially hard to take as the Cardinals fell 3-2 in overtime against Little Falls.
Those losses made the moment all the more sweet last Friday night when they punched their ticket to the Xcel Energy Center with a 4-1 win over Sartell-St. Stephen.
“It was fabulous,” head coach Scott Woods said. “In the past, it was one of those things where we knew we weren’t the favorites. We still felt like we could beat Little Falls, but we knew we weren’t the favorites, so there wasn’t quite as big of a letdown. I was awfully stressed the last month knowing we were the favorites. The favorites don’t always win, though, so it was a huge relief.”
Instead of playing nervous, Alexandria came out like a team that expected to win. Thomas Williams continued to torment the Sabres with a goal less than three minutes into the game. The senior forward scored all four of his team’s goals in a win against Sartell earlier this year. He was at his best again on Friday as he put the game away with his second of the night at 4:47 in the third.
“It’s such a luxury,” Woods said of Williams. “Sometimes, you have a top player that doesn’t show up for a couple games. He doesn’t do that. He shows up every night. He is a big game player. There are some top scorers who put up huge nights against lesser opponents. He scores in the big games and it’s a luxury to have.”
Williams was hardly alone on this night. Erich Murphy continued to demonstrate how far he has come this season with his play in goal. He stepped up his game through the first two periods to keep the Cardinals in the driver’s seat.
The Sabres outshot Alexandria 26-15 over the first two frames. Woods was happy with the play of his defense. He felt they forced the Sabres into difficult shots, but when Murphy was tested, he was up to the challenge, finishing with 30 saves.
“He was phenomenal,” Woods said. “He played really well and made big saves when he needed to.”
The Sabres only goal off Murphy came 11 minutes into the second period. It was a big one as Sean Mann tied the game at one apiece.
But like the Cardinals have done so often in the second half of the season, they responded with resurgence. Ashton Gronholz got that goal back at 14:08 in the second.
That led to a dominant third period for Alexandria. Gronholz scored again less than 30 seconds into the final period. Williams then ended any thoughts of a comeback with his second of the night a few minutes later.
“They really showed a lot of confidence, especially in the third period,” Woods said. “We as coaches, we had the sense that these kids were not going to let us lose. They were really determined. They definitely felt like they should be there.”
The Cardinals’ body of work throughout the season has justified that confidence. Alexandria has found a way to close out teams on a consistent basis after starting the season 7-5-1.
“It’s definitely been a strength of ours,” Woods said. “We went through a couple games where we weren’t really happy with how we were finishing. We had a little meeting and the players got together and talked after we talked to the seniors. Since then, they have really found a way to play the entire game and play for each other. That’s really when we started closing teams out.”
That resurgence has led to 14 wins in the last 15 games. The Cardinals are playing their best hockey heading into the state tournament.
That will need to continue in the opening round. They will match up with second-seeded Mahtomedi on Wednesday at 11 a.m.
The Zephyrs enter the tournament with a 23-5 record. They earned their trip to state by knocking off the second ranked team in Class A in St. Thomas Academy.
The Zephyrs have a lot of star power to contend with. Forwards Brandon Zurn and Charlie Adams both finished with more than 60 points during the regular season. Junior defenseman Ben Marshall, a 2011 University of Minnesota signee, was third on the team with 48 points. Woods knows his team will have to have an idea of where Marshall is on the ice at all times.
“[He] is going to the Gophers, so there’s no doubt he is exceptional,” Woods said. “We need to put a body on him early. Their top line is very good. They do a lot of their scoring, kind of like us.”
Alexandria does not expect anything to come easy in St. Paul. Then again, it has not been an easy road to get there. The Cardinals have risen to a lot of challenges so far this season. They are excited for the chance to do it again.
“What I see in this team is a group that is pretty solid from forward back to goalie,” Woods said. “I think we can surprise some teams if we play our game. The thing is, if we can get past Mahtomedi, one of the best teams down there, I think the kids’ confidence would just grow, and who knows what could happen from there.”
SARTELL 0 1 0 – 1
ALEXANDRIA 1 1 2 – 4
SCORING SUMMARY – FIRST PERIOD – Alexandria – Thomas Williams (Ross Thompson, Casey Vangsness), 2:41
SECOND PERIOD – Sartell-St. Stephen – Sean Mann (Austin Guggenburger, Ryan Nahan), 11:02; Alexandria – Ashton Gronholz (PPG) (Garrett Skinner), 14:08
THIRD PERIOD – Alexandria – Ashton Gronholz, 0:26; Alexandria – Thomas Williams, 4:47
GOALTENDING – Alexandria – Erich Murphy – 30 saves, 31 shots faced; Sartell-St. Stephen – Brent Orndorff – 18 saves, 22 shots faced