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Card boys' hockey: Return to state

It was only fitting that the Cardinals' magical run through the Section 6A boys' hockey tournament was capped off with a storybook ending last Thursday night.

Trophy
Eric Morken, Echo Press Alexandria senior captain Scott Hennen held onto the Section 6A championship trophy as he and his teammates posed for pictures for fans after the 2-1 win over Willmar last Thursday night.

It was only fitting that the Cardinals' magical run through the Section 6A boys' hockey tournament was capped off with a storybook ending last Thursday night.

Alexandria became the only fifth seed in Section 6A history to advance to the state title thanks to an unlikely hero against Willmar. Seven minutes, 24 seconds into the final period, junior Jacob Hennessy chose a great time to score the first goal of his varsity career.

Hennessy found an opening on the left side of the net as leading scorer Jordan Domine unloaded a shot. The rebound came off the pad of Willmar goaltender Christian Yrttimaa and ricocheted to his right. Hennessy was the only one there as he slapped it past Yrttimaa for what turned out to be the game winner as Alexandria won 2-1 in front of a packed house at the MAC in St. Cloud.

"It was a wide open net," Hennessy said. "I was in the right place at the right time. Our guy shot it, and it rebounded. There were people in front of the net. They had no idea where it was, and I just tapped it in pretty much...it was kind of unexplainable, the emotions I felt when that happened."

That the junior forward would have a hard time finding words to describe his emotions is understandable. He spent most of the night cheering on his teammates from the bench before replacing Chase Porter for a shift in the third.

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Head coach Scott Woods said Hennessy has been battling all season to earn playing time on the varsity level. He made the most of it when he got it in Alexandria's most important game of the season.

"As the game goes on, there's so many tough calls," Woods said. "Do you go with this? Do you go with that? That was just one where the guy he went in for, Chase Porter, he got out a little early on the shift. He looked a little tired, so I kind of took a chance and just said, 'You go in the offensive zone.' Here's a chance where I knew he had good hands if he can get around the net. He took the rest of the shift and it paid off."

It gave Alexandria a little bit of breathing room on a night when that was hard to come by. Both teams came out aggressive as they skated to a 1-1 tie after two periods.

The Cardinals jumped out first behind a goal from senior Nick Swanson. Alexandria had two shots turned away by Yrttimaa before Swanson collected a rebound and took advantage of the open net for a 1-0 lead.

Willmar answered back on the game's first power play less than four minutes later. Liam Johnston gathered the puck in front of the blue line and snuck a shot past Ben Allen just 13 seconds into the man advantage.

That was the only shot Allen let past him all night. The sophomore started all three games in the playoffs and saved his best for the biggest moments. He posted a shutout with 25 saves in the semifinals against St. Cloud Apollo and turned aside 24 shots against Willmar.

"These are my favorite games," Allen said. "I love these big games. I always play my best in them. You just got to go out and do it for the guy next to you."

Allen credited his teammates for limiting Willmar's opportunities in the final period. Willmar got off a couple late shots but was never able to create much traffic in front of the net in closing seconds.

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"I was thinking my defense is playing so well," Allen said of his mindset down the stretch. "They were keeping every shot from the perimeter. I could see almost every shot they took that last period, so I owe it all to them."

It was an Alexandria blue line that held Willmar to single digit shot opportunities in every period. Neither team had many great chances, but the ones Alexandria got, it took advantage of.

That was enough to give the Cardinals a section title that not many saw coming. Alexandria entered the tournament 9-15-1. That did not bode well in a section where the top seed had never failed to reach the section finals.

The field opened up once St. Cloud Apollo upset Little Falls in the quarterfinals. Alexandria responded by playing its best hockey of the season to take advantage of the opportunity.

"Definitely a big surprise," Hennessy said of the Cardinals' run. "A fifth seed, not too many times you see them make it. We had our ups and downs during the season but came out here knowing we were going to work as hard as we could, and we came out on top."

Alexandria's reward for winning is a date with the second ranked team in the state today, Wednesday. The Cardinals drew Hermantown as their first-round opponent as the two get set to kick off the tournament at the Xcel Energy Center with an 11 a.m. start time.

The Hawks have been one of the top teams in Class A all year. They enter the tournament with a 23-3-2 overall record after winning Section 5A by a combined score of 17-3 over their three opponents.

The Cardinals know they have their hands full, but the challenge is one they welcome with open arms.

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"Most coaches that you talk to will probably agree that the section final is probably harder than the state tournament because you just so badly want to get there," Woods said. "You want the kids to have that experience to take with them for a lifetime. Once you get there, you kind of just go play."

GAME SUMMARY

ALEXANDRIA 0 1 1 - 2

WILLMAR 0 1 0 - 1

SHOTS - Alexandria - 8, 9, 13 - 30; Willmar - 8, 8, 9 - 25

SCORING SUMMARY - FIRST PERIOD - No scoring

SECOND PERIOD - Alexandria - Nick Swanson (Jordan Domine, Scott Hennen), 6:38; Willmar - Liam Johnston (PPG) (Zech Streed), 10:16

THIRD PERIOD - Alexandria - Jacob Hennessy (Jordan Domine, Nick Swanson), 7:24

GOALTENDING - Alexandria - Ben Allen - W, 24 saves, 25 shots faced; Willmar - Christian Yrttimaa - L, 28 saves, 30 shots faced

PENALTIES - Alexandria - four minutes on two infractions; Willmar - six minutes on three infractions

Related Topics: HOCKEY
Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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