The St. Cloud Cathedral boys hockey team is the front-runner to make it back to the state tournament out of Section 6A. However, on Monday night, Alexandria proved it wouldn't be an easy out come postseason.
The Crusaders (15-1-1) beat the Cardinals (12-6) 5-2 in a rematch of last year's section championship game. Despite the loss, Alexandra's head coach, Ian Resch, found out that his guys can go toe-to-toe with Class A's top-ranked team, according to Let's Play Hockey.
"We did a lot of good things tonight," Resch said. "We wanted to make sure that we competed and didn't let the game get away from us. Against a good team like that, you have to put together 51 minutes. They have some guys that can get around the net. They finished, that's why they're the top team in the state."
The Crusaders got off to a hot start early in the first. Nate Warner, a University of Minnesota hockey commitment, scored 49 seconds into the game.
"They're fast, and they're good with the puck," senior Shane Birkeland said. "They don't quit. They have such skilled players. They bring it every time, and we expect it from them."
Despite only putting one shot on net in the first period, Alexandria had a few quality scoring chances. Josiah Gronholz hit the crossbar on a shot that would've tied the game before the intermission.
The Crusaders outshot the Cardinals 12-1 in the first period, but the goaltending from Alexandria junior Christopher Loken kept the Cardinals within reach. He made several sprawling saves to minimize the damage.
"He's grown leaps and bounds. It was another tough assignment for him," Resch said. "Without him coming up big in that flurry, the game is over in the first period. That's what we need. He did exactly what we asked. We wanted to go into the third period with a shot to win it, and he gave us that chance."
Cathedral's Mack Motzko put his team up 2-0 early in the second period on a shot that slipped under the arm of Loken. It looked as if Cathedral was going to blow the game open before Alexandria's depth gave it a spark.
Midway through the second period, Jacob Partington found himself in a puck battle with a Crusader at center ice. He advanced the puck up to Peyton Doty, who won a one-on-one battle against a defender in front of the net. Birkeland put the loose puck in the back of the net to cut the lead in half.
"We were forechecking hard and buzzing," Birkeland said. "I was in the right spot at the right time when the puck came right to me. It always feels good to get one in front of the students and the fans."
The assists from Partington and Doty didn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff. They turned a nothing play into a goal that shifted the momentum in Alexandria's favor.
"That's puck pressure," Resch said. "It was a hard-working shift. That's what happens when you create turnovers and work hard. They're not highlight-reel type goals, but they're goals."
Alexandria tied the game two minutes later when Andrew Revering forced a turnover in the defensive zone and found Derek Pesta streaking down the ice. Pesta beat Cathedral goalie Grant Martin to even the score.
The third period belonged to Motzko. He scored his second goal of the game a minute into the third period to regain the lead for the Crusaders. He later assisted on Warner's second goal of the game before completing the hat trick with under three minutes to play. Motzko is second on the team in points with 14 goals and 24 assists.
Even though Alexandria didn't come away with the win, the Cardinals competed with the presence of a team that could make a playoff run. One of the most significant changes from last week is Birkeland's spot on the ice.
"We like him up front as a forward," Resch said. "He's a senior that brings some experience and scoring like we saw tonight. We need more scoring depth, and he's willing to go to the tough areas."
Birkeland's transition from defense to forward wasn't unexpected. In the youth ranks, he spent time at the winger position.
"The change happened before the game in River Lakes," Birkeland said. "It's something we've been talking about with the coaching staff for a while now. I feel comfortable with it. I think it was the right time for it."
The Cardinals were without senior forward Caleb Strong, their leading scorer. He served the second day in a two-game suspension after an unsportsmanlike conduct incident against Monticello last Tuesday.
"Caleb is our best player," Resch said. "He's our leader. We get Caleb back tomorrow against River Lakes. I know he's excited to play, and we're excited to have him. Tonight is history. We did some good things, and we learned from it. I know we are looking forward to tomorrow night."
The Cardinals hope they'll get another shot at Cathedral in the postseason. But first, they want to finish the regular season on a high note and stay near the top of the 6A standings.
"Anybody is beatable no matter how good or bad you are," Birkeland said. "I like the vibe in the locker room lately. We've been trying to stay out of the box because we know that hurts us. Special teams are a huge part of our game. Hopefully we can keep it going tomorrow night. (River Lakes) has a good goalie, and they're physical. They don't quit. We have to keep grinding."
ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL 1 1 3 - 5
ALEXANDRIA 0 2 0 - 2
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- SCC- Nate Warner (Mack Motzko) 0:49; SECOND PERIOD- SCC- Motzko (Warner, Blake Perbix) 3:03; Alexandria- Shane Birkeland (Peyton Doty, Jacob Partington) 11:09; Alexandria- Derek Pesta (Andrew Revering); THIRD PERIOD- SCC- Motzko (Josh Mikkinen) 1:04; SCC- Warner (Motzko, Perbix) 6:39; SCC- Motzko (unassisted) 14:09; PENALTIES- Alexandria- 2 minutes on 1 infraction; SCC- 4 minutes on 2 infractions; GOALTENDING- Alexandria- Christopher Loken, L, 29 aves, 5 goals allowed; SCC- Grant Martin, W, 12 saves, 2 goal allowed