On senior night at the Runestone Community Center, the Alexandria boys hockey team veterans led the charge in a comeback from a three-goal deficit to beat seventh-ranked Duluth Denfeld 6-4 on Friday night.
"It feels good to be able to pull this one out," senior Derek Pesta said. "We had a lot of energy tonight, and we just wanted to get a win on senior night in front of these fans."
The Cardinal's played seven games against the current top-10 Class A teams in the state heading into Friday night, according to Let's Play Hockey.
Duluth Denfeld (16-5-1) was the next test for Alexandria (16-8-0). With the section playoffs right around the corner, a comeback win is the confidence boost the ninth-ranked Cardinals wanted.
"We've played a tough schedule this year, and against those good teams, small mistakes will cost you," Alexandria head coach Ian Resch said. "The seniors weren't going to be denied tonight. We are getting ready for playoffs, and we are playing playoff hockey right now. The guys are hungry and we are winning battles. What a great win for the boys tonight."
Alexandria senior goalie Landyn James stood tall in the first period with 12 saves. Despite his efforts, the Hunters scored two goals in the final minutes of the first period.
The Cardinals took two penalties in 34 seconds – giving Denfeld a 5-on-3 power play. Simon Davidson capitalized on the two-man advantage with a goal through traffic. The second power play expired with six ticks remaining on the first-period clock, but Griffin Lehet doubled the lead with under a second to play before the intermission with a buzzer-beater goal.
"Even when we got down 2-0, I still liked our jump," Resch said. "We got back in late (Thursday night) after we played Brainerd, so maybe that had something to do with the slow start. I never felt like we were going to lose this game."
The Cardinals cut the lead in half midway through the second period with a hard-working goal from Pesta. Caleb Strong's shot ricocheted off Denfeld goalie Jacob Snyder's leg in front of the net. Pesta won the race to cut the lead in half.
The Hunters responded with back-to-back goals to take their largest lead of the game. Alexandria senior forward Shane Birkeland cut the lead to two before the intermission.
"I think we saw the coaches come back to the locker room fired up, and that's what we needed to hear," Pesta said. "We had a lot of chances that weren't going in. They told us to keep pushing and that they'll pay off."
Junior forward Joe Westlund was one of the players who had been snake-bitten on several chances leading up to the third period. After the Hunters took a penalty, Westlund finally found the back of the net.
Midway through the period, senior forward Caleb Strong scored another power-play goal to tie the game. Pesta followed it up with the game-winning goal with under five minutes remaining.
"I've never been the guy to get the game-winner like that," Pesta said. "It was really special doing it on senior night with the guys I've played with for 12 years. We wanted this one, and to come back against a good team is huge for us."
Pesta's goals weren't flashy, but instead the result of winning battles against the Hunter across from him.
"Derek Pesta is playing the best hockey of his life right now," Resch said. "He's such a leader for us. He recognizes those points in a game where something has to be done and he has to make something happen. We are really happy for him."
The offensive explosion might not have happened if not for the shutdown defense the Cardinals played after giving up the fourth goal. James finished with 28 saves on the night behind a group of defenders that limited Denfeld's quality chances in the second half of the game.
"It was just a couple of lapses early that they bounced back from," Resch said. "It was a good, team defensive night. Our guys played a 200-foot game tonight. Lando made the saves he needed to make in the third period and the guys in front of him played well in all zones. You have to have that this time of year."
Resch added that he thinks his team is playing his best hockey of the season. After a fourth-win over a top-10 opponent, the confidence is growing in the locker room.
"We think we can beat anybody we step on the ice within our section right now," Pesta said. "We were tied with (St. Cloud Cathedral) heading into the third period. We shifted some lines up, and now we feel like we are playing better as a team."
DULUTH DENFELD 2 2
ALEXANDRIA 0 2
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- Denfeld- Simon Davidson (Dylan Jouppi) power play, 15:45; Denfeld- Griffin Lehet (Connor McClure, Simon Davidson) 16:59; SECOND PERIOD- Alexandria- Derek Pesta (Caleb Strong, Logan Croonquist) 10:34; Denfeld- Lehet (McClure, Caleb Perrault) 12:12; Denfeld- Kade Shea (McClure, Jouppi) power play, 1307; Alexandria- Shane Birkeland (Josiah Gronholz, Andrew Revering) 14:40; THIRD PERIOD- Alexandria- Joe Westlund (Revering, Gronholz) power play, 4:44; Alexandria- Strong (Westlund, Gronholz) power play, 8:06; Alexandria- Pesta (Jacob Partington, Birkeland) 12:46; Alexandria- Gronholz (unassisted) empty net, 15:59; PENALTIES- Alexandria- 8 minutes on 4 infractions; Denfeld- 10 minutes on 5 infractions; GOALTENDING- Alexandria- Landyn James, W, 29 saves, 4 goals allowed; Denfeld- Jacob Snyder, L, 23 saves, 5 goals allowed