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Alexandria boys' hockey: Playoff loss still lingers

Alexandria junior Toby Helgeson took a pass in the third period of last Thursday's 5-0 win over Prairie Centre. Helgeson finished with a team-high three points after scoring a second-period goal and adding two assists. (Eric Morken, Echo Press)

It was a little more than nine months ago that Alexandria boys' hockey players sat stunned on the Runestone Community Center ice.

Many of them had tears in their eyes as they tried to figure out how a game against seventh-seeded Willmar got away from them in a 4-3 loss that ended their season. If you think the returning players from that group have moved past that, you'd be wrong.

"It really just left a sour taste in my mouth," senior goaltender Ben Allen said last Thursday night. "I'm getting goose bumps right now just thinking about it. I can remember each one of those goals. It's just a picture in my mind."

Senior forward Jack Wensman just shook his head as Allen relived that night.

"Especially when I had a chance to get the lead in the game with that penalty shot and I hit the post," Wensman added. "That's been haunting me all summer long."

The good news for Allen and Wensman is they have a chance to erase that memory this season. Head coach Scott Woods said that night served as motivation for his team in the off-season. Guys got in the weight room and got stronger and faster. Almost every varsity player was on the ice taking part in the team's summer program.

"Those guys that were here, they don't want it to end that way again," Woods said. "It's bad for the seniors, but for the returners, sometimes it's a good thing."

Through two games, Woods can see that determination and also the things this group needs to work on. Alexandria moved past an 8-4 loss to Moorhead in the season opener by running past Prairie Centre 5-0 last Thursday night.

The Cardinals, two days after falling behind 4-0 against the Spuds, flipped the script on the North Stars as Wensman, Brady Bast, Tom Schmidt and Patrick Leary all scored in the opening period. Toby Helgeson added a second-period goal and finished with three points to help even his team's record at 1-1 on the early season.

That offensive production is a comforting sign for a team that had some questions to answer coming into the season. The Cardinals got points from eight different players on Thursday night. Bast, Leary, Wensman, Schmidt and Matt Resch all had two apiece.

"We were able to finish," Woods said. "It's kind of nice to see in both those first two games. One of my main concerns this year was, I knew we had some guys who could score, it's a matter of whether or not we would start to step up and do it. It showed in the first two games. We're starting to put the puck in the net."

No one was happier to see that than Allen. The four first-period goals gave him a nice cushion to work with on a night when he earned the shutout with 19 saves. It wasn't those stops he wanted to talk about afterwards. It was the offense that made his job a lot easier.

"Offensively, at least for these first two games, it seems like we have a lot more firepower," Allen said. "Defensively, we're getting there. We need to do a little work, but offensively, we've really got it going a lot faster this year."

The Cardinals know some consistency on offense could lead to a lot of wins. Allen provides an anchor at the back of their defense that should keep them in most games. They won't always need four or five goals to get the job done, not with a senior goaltender in net who already has two years of varsity experience underneath him.

"It's not very often that Ben has an off night," Woods said. "Even the Moorhead game, I thought he wasn't quite as sharp as usual, but certainly in his defense, nobody was...sometimes there's a little let down with that where we think, 'Oh, Ben will get it.' The Moorhead game, we gave up so many odd-man rushes. I don't know if it's because they're expecting that he's going to step up and save them. That part was bad in that first game, things we shouldn't have done."

Penalties were another area that had Woods concerned through the first two games. Alexandria had to fend off two 5-on-3 opportunities for Prairie Centre in a game where the Cardinals took nine penalties compared to one for the North Stars.

This team knows from experience what spending too much time in the box can do against good teams. Willmar scored on two of its three power plays in the playoffs last season to help erase what had been a 3-1 deficit. The Cardinals know good teams will do that again if it continues to be a problem.

"Against a good team like Little Falls, Bemidji, Roseau, they're going to make us pay for those penalties," Allen said. "They're going to capitalize on those. We definitely need to get a little smarter."

The Cardinals feel they can be right where they want to be by season's end if they can clean up some of those things. Little Falls has another good team after winning the Section 6A title a year ago. The Flyers are currently ranked 10th in the early Class A polls.

Alexandria is motivated to earn a shot at a team like Little Falls come February. The Cardinals remember vividly what it felt like to see those goals come up short a year ago. The only way to get over that will be to make good on a second chance.

"I think they have their eyes set," Woods said. "They have big intentions of having a chance to knock off Little Falls and whoever else might be there that you have to get through to get there first. I think we have the right pieces if we play well and do the things we need to do."



ALEXANDRIA 4 1 0 - 5

SHOTS - Prairie Centre - 13, 1, 5 - 19; Alexandria - 14, 8, 17 - 39

SCORING - FIRST PERIOD - Alexandria - Jack Wensman (Matt Resch, Tom Schmidt), 1:14; Alexandria - Brady Bast (Patrick Leary, Toby Helgeson), 2:45; Alexandria - Tom Schmidt (Jack Wensman, Matt Resch), 10:07; Alexandria - Patrick Leary (Brady Bast, Toby Helgeson), 10:56

SECOND PERIOD - Alexandria - Toby Helgeson (Parker Revering, Ryan Marciniak), 6:54

THIRD PERIOD - No scoring

GOALTENDING - Prairie Centre - Clay Deters - L, 34 saves, 39 shots; Alexandria - Ben Allen - W, 19 saves, 19 shots

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

(320) 763-1229