Friday night, with the fans counting down the final seconds of North Wright County’s 4-0 section final victory over Moorhead, it hit senior star Dani Sibley.
“I hit [Goaltender Alex LaMere] on the pads and said hey, 10 seconds left,” said Sibley. “I took a step back, like wow, we’re going to the state tournament.”
For many, it may have hit earlier than that. The Riverhawks’ girls hockey team was impressive all season in their ability to take care of business game after game, even in the tough-as-nails early portion of their schedule. In sections, they seemed destined for state, as they continued that ability. The Hawks controlled section play, and each game, from start to finish, culminating with the 4-0 victory over seventh-seed Moorhead Friday night in Sartell, giving NWC its second state tournament berth in three years.
The game, which featured North Wright County’s third shutout in as many section games, wasn’t put away till late. But there were early signs that the Hawks were in control.
In the first period, NWC put 10 more shots on the net than the Spuds, and were able to force one of them into the back of the net. After the Moorhead goalie failed to clear or cover a puck near the net, multiple Hawks players attempted to pound the puck past her.
“It was just a complete second effort, third effort,” said Coach Jason Johnson. “We had about four girls in the paint trying to score that goal.”
Rachel King finally suceeded, giving the Hawks a 1-0 edge with just over six minutes left in the first period.
“I love it when we score first,” said LaMere. “It gives us momentum and it gives us confidence. I think those are two huge things in the game.”
The Hawks used that momentum to continue to pelt the Moorhead goalie, but after the first goal, she continued to turn away the top-seeded Riverhawks during the remainder of the first period and all through the second period.
The second period featured a couple of empty power plays for the Hawks, and left the Hawks feeling like they’d missed a couple of chances to extend the lead. To compound matters, NWC picked up a five-minute major for contact to the head in the final seconds of the second period. The Spuds would get the entire second intermission to prepare for nearly a five-minute power play as they attempted to tie the Hawks, if not take the lead.
Johnson didn’t think Moorhead had much left in the tank, and was worried this could be the spark they needed. But, that wasn’t how he approached it with his team.
“We’re gonna get through this kill,” Johnson told the team. “And it’s going to give us huge momentum.”
And that is just what the Riverhawks did. The Spuds mustered just a couple of quality chances throughout the power play, as an aggressive NWC penalty kill kept Moorhead from ever getting comfortable in their own zone.
“We kill penalities all the time in practice,” said Sibley. “We were used to it, we just had to stay confident. Every girl that went out there on that [kill] did a great job.”
And as Johnson had predicted it would, it gave NWC some big-time momentum.
“After that five-minute penalty, I looked at Kaleigh Hamann, we kind of looked at each other, like hey, we got this,” said LaMere. “We just killed off a five-minute major, there is nothing that can stop us now.”
That was about to become a lot more certain. Just seconds after the five-minute skater advantage came to an end, Sibley put the puck in the back of the net, giving NWC a two-goal lead and a little breathing room. Three minutes later, with nine minutes remaining in the final period, Marina Chapman added another insurance goal.
It was 3-0, Riverhawks.
“I think when we got to three, they could all kind of sense it,” said Johnson.
When Moorhead put together the rare scoring chance, LaMere continued to be up to the task. Her ability to make the first save was aided by the Hawks’ ability to clear the puck from the front of the net. The combination equaled the third straight section shutout for the Hawks, or a ridiculous stretch of 153 minutes straight without allowing the other team to put the puck in the net.
“Our trademark and our hallmark is going to be our defensive play,” said Johnson. “Every game that we start we’re just talking about limiting opportunities, and the byproduct at the end is we end up with a zero up [on the scoreboard].”
In the final seconds, Maddi Sjelin scored an empty netter to add one final tally to the NWC side of the scoreboard. But as the Hawks looked up at the scoreboard, it didn’t just show 4-0 Friday night. In the waning seconds, it showed the realization of a whole lot of hopes and wishes.
“It’s a dream come true that we get to end [the season at state],” said Sibley.
The fifth-seeded Riverhawks will play fourth-seeded Lakeville North at 8 p.m. tonight at the Xcel Energy Center. For more, read the state tournament preview on this page.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com