Win or lose, the Alexandria boys hockey team was going to learn a lot about itself this week.
The Cardinals were 4-0 entering Monday and had dominated teams through those four wins, outscoring opponents 27-2 in the process. They dropped a 3-2 overtime game against St. Cloud Cathedral (6-0) on Tuesday, a team that is now Class A’s top-ranked team in the Dec. 12 polls.
Then on Thursday night, Class AA’s St. Cloud (Tech/Apollo) took a 3-1 lead early in the second period. It wasn’t the start they were looking for, but the Cardinals eventually rallied for a 5-4 win that left head coach Ian Resch expecting more from his guys.
“I thought we came out flat,” Resch said. “We weren’t winning races to pucks, in all zones. We saw a little bit of that on Tuesday night where we just got out-hustled to pucks. We talked about it, and I don’t know if the guys thought tonight wouldn’t be as much of a challenge as Tuesday, but this is a good hockey team. We’re a team that prides itself on not giving up many goals. Our goal is two or less, and we gave up four tonight. We’ve got work to do.”
Resch expects a lot from this team because it’s a group with championship aspirations. The Cardinals, ranked third in the Class A polls, eventually bounced back from that slow start.
Senior Ben Doherty gave Alexandria a 4-3 lead in the third period on a power-play goal, but the Cardinals gave it right back. Already down a man on the power play, senior Jack Westlund took a cross checking penalty that gave St. Cloud it’s second 5-on-3 of the night. It took just seconds before Luke Johnson scored a goal that tied things at 4-4.
“I think (at that point) it was just getting the team fired up and making sure they don’t shut down after that and lose hope,” Doherty said. “We’re still in it. It’s a tie game and a lot of game left. At that point, we just had to make sure we kept our minds in the game.”
Westlund eventually made amends for that late penalty. He battled hard for a loose puck in the corner and sent it back in front. His longtime linemate was crashing the net as Doherty took the pass and buried it for what turned out to be the game-winner with almost five minutes left.
“He has a tremendous amount of skill and he’s the type of player who can change the game,” Doherty said of Westlund. “That pass was unbelievable. He battled in the corner and won the battle and found me out in the slot. It was a great pass and work from him down low.”
It was Westlund’s younger brother, sophomore Joe Westlund, who kept Alexandria in the game early. It took almost 10 minutes for the Cardinals to get a shot on goal, but Joe made it count by scoring to make it 1-0 in the first.
St. Cloud immediately answered with two quick goals. A couple minutes into the second, Johnson scored to make it 3-1 St. Cloud. The Cardinals needed a boost, and they got it when Joe Westlund worked his way toward the front of the net. He deflected a Joseph Bigger shot in mid-air and tipped it into the goal for his second score of the night.
“Joe is such a skilled kid. He works so hard, he competes so hard,” Resch said. “He has that scoring mentality where he’s going to work hard to get a chance and if he does, he’s going to bury it. He’s been huge for us as a young player. He’s only a 10th-grader, and he’s playing big minutes and scoring big goals. I can’t say enough about how he’s performing for us so far.”
Junior Caleb Strong tied it up late in the second when he gathered up a rebound in front of the net off a Jack Westlund shot. It was 3-3, and the Cardinals had new life going to the third.
“We’ve been tested a lot this week, and we’re learning a lot about ourselves,” Doherty said. “I think one thing we can say we’ve been is resilient this week. We came back from a 2-0 deficit against Cathedral, and tonight we came back again. To come back and compete in both games, it’s pretty promising.”
The lopsided margins of victory from earlier in the season were likely never going to be the case this week. Not against Cathedral, St. Cloud (1-2-2) and now East Grand Forks (7-1) coming up this Saturday. Resch knew these would be tougher tests.
“In our case, we need this,” he said. “We had some games where we got away with a lot. We were able to cheat on things, and now these two games on Tuesday and tonight, we’re learning some tough lessons.”
Penalties were at the forefront of that. The Cardinals spent 12 minutes in the box on six minors. Resch called it unacceptable to give St. Cloud two 5-on-3 opportunities.
Alexandria has only given up one goal on the power play all season, but that is likely not sustainable against good teams over the long run.
“We’re just not learning those lessons,” Resch said. “The second period, we were all over them. We had the momentum and then we take two penalties back-to-back, and they weren’t good penalties. I know we’re going to take penalties. If they’re good penalties, you can live with it. When it’s retaliation or not controlling your body or stick or mouth, you can’t be a championship team playing that way.”
That’s ultimately the level Alexandria wants to be at. After dropping their first game of the season on Tuesday, the Cardinals got a win that the head coach hopes will also be a wake-up call heading into another tough test at East Grand Forks on Saturday.
“We have to figure some things out because the year goes fast and all of a sudden you’re knocking on the door of the playoffs,” Resch said. “We have another chance on Saturday to play on the road against a good team. We won tonight, but the way we won, there’s a better way to do it. We can’t be spending as much time in the penalty box as we did tonight."
ST. CLOUD 2 1 1 - 4
ALEXANDRIA 1 2 2 - 5
SCORING - FIRST PERIOD - Alexandria - Joe Westlund, 10:02; St. Cloud - August Falloon (Nick Richert, Sam Oster), 11:26; St. Cloud - Blake Keller (Jack Randolph), 12:26
SECOND PERIOD - St. Cloud - Luke Johnson (Sam Oster), 1:49; Alexandria - Joe Westlund (Joseph Bigger, Derek Pesta), 8:16; Alexandria - Caleb Strong (Jack Westlund, Joseph Bigger), 13:59
THIRD PERIOD - Alexandria - Ben Doherty (PPG) (Caleb Strong), 3:57; St. Cloud - Luke Johnson (Cory Warner, Sean Davidson), 6:19; Alexandria - Ben Doherty (Jack Westlund), 11:30
GOALTENDING - St. Cloud - Soren Falloon - L, 13 saves, 5 goals allowed; Alexandria - Bailey Rosch - W, 8 saves, 4 goals allowed