February 22, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.
The Wildcat girls' hockey team crushed number-one seed and eleventh-ranked Eveleth-Gilbert 10-1 in Cloquet last Friday night to earn a berth in the state high school hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center. Their first game will be against top-ranked Warroad at 6 p.m. Wednesday, February 24.
This game provided a season's worth of highlights: a four-goal performance by a senior who is playing the best hockey of her career; three players on the same line with five or more points; a "header" goal more reminiscent of soccer than hockey; a great performance by a goaltender that was almost overlooked in a sea of offensive highlights; the continuing emergence of a line with an eighth-grader and two sophomores; nine goals scored against one of the best goalies in the state (she was replaced in the third period); and a stifling defense that rarely allowed the Golden Bears a chance to get set up in the offensive zone.
Senior Ashley Gibson scored three of the Wildcats' first four goals, including one she poked under the goalie's glove just 15 seconds into the game, and finished the night with four goals and an assist. It was Gibson's second hat trick of the season. Gibson's linemate, senior Sam Lorr, led the Wildcats with six points on two goals and four assists. And Gibson's other linemate, sophomore Laura Monson, had a goal and three assists, with all three assists coming on Gibson's first three goals.
After Gibson's opening goal, the play went back and forth for much of the first period, with no indication that a whipping was in the offing. With just over five minutes remaining, Gibson's line's aggressive forecheck kept the puck in the Golden Bear zone. Lorr picked up the puck at the left sideboards, skated toward the left side of the net, cut from left to right and roofed it backhanded to put the Wildcats up 2-0. Just two minutes later, Monson threaded a pass up the middle to Gibson in stride and Gibson raced up the middle, knifed through the Golden Bear defense and slid a beautiful backhand past the goalie. The Wildcats led 3-0 after one period.
Eveleth came out of the locker room after the first intermission with a little jump in their step. The Wildcats seemed a little lackluster on their first shift. The Golden Bears took advantage of the situation, scoring just 30 seconds into the period to cut the lead to 3-1 and seemingly make a game of it. But that proved to be the only poor shift of the night for the Wildcats as they got right back to business. Gibson put one home from the slot two minutes later on the power play for a 4-1 lead and the hat trick. When Gibson scored her fourth goal of the game on a rebound from Lorr's shot at 8:28, you could feel the rout coming. Elvis was getting ready to leave the building and the fat lady was warming up her vocal cords halfway through the second period.
The Wildcats scored four more goals in a five minute stretch starting at 11:49. Lushanko and eighth-grader Allison Borgstrom skated over the blue line two-on-one. Lushanko, on the right, timed her pass across to Borgstrom perfectly, and Borgstrom one-timed it into the back of the net. Monson scored, assisted by Lorr. Borgstrom stole the puck in the neutral zone, sped down the middle, split the defense and scored from point blank range for her second goal of the game. And the Wildcats' relentless forecheck paid off with just 11 seconds left in the period. Skating shorthanded, Lushanko stole the puck in the high slot and fired it one net. Lorr swept in to clean up the rebound for her second goal of the game, and the Wildcats were up 9-1.
At the beginning of the third period, the referees huddled together with tournament officials to decide if the mercy rule applied in the playoffs. Somebody looked in the rule book and, sure enough, running time was in order. Once the puck was dropped at the beginning of the period, the clock didn't stop except to set penalties. The Wildcats emptied the bench and still kept up the pressure. With just under six minutes left in the game, eighth-grade defenseman Rikki had the puck at the right point and ripped a wrist shot that appeared headed through the slot into the left corner. Lushanko was standing just inside the right hashmark. The puck hit Lushanko in the helmet and ricocheted into the net past a startled Eveleth goalie into the net for the final goal of the game. Waldoch's head-banging assist was her first point as a varsity player. Borgstrom also received an assist on the play.
Needless to say, it was an excited group of state tournament-bound Wildcats we talked to after the game. "I'm so excited! I can't believe this is happening," gushed sophomore Wildcat goaltender Jamie Dobosenski. Dobosenski stopped 25 of the 26 shots she faced in the game. "My confidence comes from my teammates," she continued. "I love getting shots. I thought we were going to have a tight game tonight, but we just blew them away. Their goalie never had a chance."
Lushanko, who played her usual electrifying brand of hockey in this game, said "That was amazing. I never thought we'd get this far. But we played a tough schedule and our season started to go well when we got Jamie back in the nets after she missed the first few games. And the teams in our section aren't as strong as a lot of the teams in our conference, like Benilde, Totino and Irondale."
Sophomore defenseman Katie Johnson said "I'm real happy for the seniors. Eveleth thought they were going to walk all over us, but we walked all over them. We were inspired by our friend Marisa Alliegro this season. She's not a hockey player, but she wrote us inspirational notes to get us fired up before every game. Words can't describe how excited I am. This is a dream come true."
Wildcat head coach Jason Mahlen was similarly exuberant after the game. "Beating the eleventh-ranked team in the state 10-1 in the section championship game is surreal," said Mahlen. "Before the game, if you had predicted this outcome I would have told you you were crazy. I'm really proud of our team. We played free, had fun and put together our best game of the season." Mahlen looked ahead to the Wildcats' first state tournament appearance since 2004, when he was a Wildcat assistant. "It's not every year you get a chance to go to the state tournament," he said. "We're still trying to soak it all in - the banquet, playing at the Xcel, all of it. This is bonus time for our season. The pressure is off. We're going to just have fun and go play some more hockey and see if we can keep it going."
The Wildcats (12-13-3 overall, 9-3-2 in their last 14 games) open the state tournament against Warroad (23-1-1), the top-ranked team in the state, this Wednesday at the Xcel Center at 6 p.m. For more tournament information, including schedules for second and third round games, go to www.mshsl.org.