Even in a schedule jam packed with big games, Thursday night’s conference opener at Buffalo stood out.
All it once it was a chance for the North Wright County Riverhawks to knock off a rival and a ranked team, to make their own case to vault back into the rankings, and most importantly to take the reins early in the Mississippi 8 conference race.
North Wright County didn’t miss its chance.
The Riverhawks pulled away late to turn a thriller into a formality in the form of a 4-0 win over the No. 12 team in Class AA.
“That was absolutely a great way to start for us,” said Coach Jason Johnson. “The path to the conference title has to go through Buffalo.”
It may be more accurate to say it goes through North Wright County, who has won four of the past five Mississippi 8 championships. But without a doubt Buffalo is and has been the best of the rest over the last few years. They stole the title of conference champions from NWC during the 2010-11 season, and they’ve been close other times.
Thursday, they were closer than the final score indicated. But the Hawks managed to play the entire game without a major letdown, eventually leading to their hard fought win.
Johnson said he was most impressed not with any skill set or shooting display the Hawks put on, but simply by the way they played the game.
“We competed,” said Johnson. “[I’m proud] of how much grit we had and how hard we played.”
Still, all of the competing in the world would have went to waste if the Hawks couldn’t find the back of the net. They didn’t have that problem.
Senior scorer Dani Sibley got the first. Her goal, with a few minutes left in the first period, came after winning a battle for the puck.
“It’s fun to coach a player that wins so many of those battles,” said Johnson.
On the other end of the ice, Alex Lamere was winning every battle she encountered.
She was perfect, at least statistically, stonewalling the Bison on each and every one of their 29 shots. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Last year Lamere got the start in the first matchup with Buffalo as a sophomore and shut out the Bison in a 2-0 win, playing a large role in helping NWC to an eventual conference championship.
Johnson opened this year with an open competition between Lamere and Dayna Duncan. While Duncan is still very much part of the Hawks’ plan, it has become clear early that Lamere is going to be the go-to goaltender.
“Alex has probably established herself as our No. 1,” said Johnson. “She had some really opportune and big time saves.”
For the entirety of the second period, the grit of the Hawks and the goaltending of Lamere kept the lead at one.
In the third period, it ballooned. Just 44 seconds into the period, Kaleigh Hamann made it 2-0. Two minutes later, Greta Stanton made it 3-0 and NWC was finally able to breathe a bit. With just five minutes remaining, Hamann tallied her second goal, assuring the Hawks would take an unblemished conference record into their next test, a home contest with Rogers, a team ranked No. 14 in Class A.
That test came Tuesday, and NWC passed after an early scare. The Hawks fell behind 2-0 after the first period, but bounced back to beat Rogers 5-2 behind two goals (including the game winner) for Rachel Heiber. The victory keeps them on top of the Missisippi 8 standings and likely will thrust them into the state rankings, where they think they belong.
“I feel like we’re a team that is certainly a top-20 team,” said Johnson.
They’ll continue to get opportunities to prove it. Coming off consecutive games against ranked opponents, the Hawks will face three more highly ranked teams in a row starting with a visit north this weekend for a back-to-back set against hockey powers Roseau and Thief River Falls.
Roseau is currently No. 11 in Class AA while Thief River Falls is No. 3 in Class A, one spot behind Red Wing who defeated NWC 5-4 in overtime earlier this season.