The North Wright County Riverhawks used the final week of the regular season for two purposes. First, to jockey for section position. Second, to show fans it might not be a postseason promoting good nail health.
The Riverhawks continued their trend of low-scoring, close games with a 0-0 tie against Rogers Thursday, before picking up a 3-2 victory at Moorhead Saturday to conclude the regular season.
The two contests were just the type of nailbiting games that Coach Jason Johnson expects to continue into section play, which begins this weekend.
“This is the team we are and we know that,” said Johnson. “We’re built for this. Nothing’s changed all season long, we’re going to win close games and we’re going to be in close games.”
Thursday, playing at Rogers, the Riverhawks had some early opportunities to open the game up a little bit.
The visitors were in control throughout the opening 8 minutes, racking up a few quality chances that would later come few and far between. But they weren’t able to take advantage. They were consistently stonewalled by Michelle Klimstra, who earlier that day had been named a finalist for Goaltender of the Year by Let’s Play Hockey. So, when the Hawks took their first penalty 8 minutes into the game, the score was still knotted at zero and Rogers had chance to settle in and level the ice back out.
With Rogers creating their own chances on the man-advantage and after the advantage ended, it was Alex LaMere’s chance to stand tall.
LaMere, who was also named one of the 10 finalists for Goaltender of the Year, was equally up to the task. She made numerous saves during the middle stretch of the first period, helping keep the home team off the scoreboard.
The second period saw more of the same. The early action heavily favored North Wright County, as the Hawks had three power play opportunities come and go, before tilting back to Rogers later in the period, but again, both goalies were up to the task. LaMere stopped 10 shots in the period, to her counterpart’s eight.
In the third, the chances dwindled, as the teams grew hesitant to make a mistake in a game where the first goal was likely going to be the game winner.
The few chances that each team did have, were, again, stopped.
In overtime, North Wright County produced a bevy of shots, outshooting Rogers 12-3, but they weren’t able to earn ideal scoring chances, or capitalize on the chances they had, as the final 8 minutes ticked off harmlessly, ending the conference battle in a tie and leaving the Hawks with mixed emotions.
“I don’t know if it’s a good tie or not,” said Johnson. “But it’s a tie.”
One thing the coach did know was that his team owed a lot of the tie to the continued stellar play of LaMere.
“Alex was great,” said Johnson. “Unfortunately, she had to be good in too many spots for us. We gave up too many [Grade A] opportunities and we didn’t get enough on the other end.”
Saturday, NWC was able to generate and take advantage of a few more opportunities.
However, the game didn’t get off to an ideal start for the Hawks as they fell behind 1-0 after one, despite outshooting the home team 9-7 in the opening period.
But the visitors bounced back in the second. North Wright County put 13 shots on net in the period, and more importantly, scored twice.
Nine minutes into the period, Greta Stanton got the Hawks on the board. Her goal, assisted by Anne Marie Herald, tied the game at one.
Less than a minute-and-a-half later, the Riverhawks jumped in front when Maddie Young scored a goal, assisted by Marina Chapman and Heidi Prebonich.
The Riverhawks got an important insurance goal just over a minute into the third period from Emily Achterkirch, and then, they hung on.
LaMere faced 16 shots from the Spuds in the third period, after seeing just 18 in the first two periods combined, holding strong until the final minute. Moorhead, with just over a minute remaining scored a goal to pull within one. But after that, LaMere and the Hawks shut the door, earning a big, 3-2 road win.
The biggest bright spot for the Hawks was likely scoring three even strength goals, while the downside was getting shutout on the power play again. That’s something that Johnson knows will need to change if NWC is going to have the success they crave in section play.
“It’s going to come down to goaltending, special teams and how you defend,” said Johnson, of postseason play. “And our power play has not been as good as it needs to be.”
But the belief is there that the power play will get better, and the other two key areas have been strong points for the Hawks all year, giving them plenty of reason to believe they can contend in what is viewed as a wide-open section.
“I’m pushing them right now, because I know they have a chance to win this section still,” said Johnson. “It’s going to be a great battle, but we know it’s teams that we can beat.”
Section seeds were released Tuesday afternoon and North Wright County received the five seed. The Riverhawks will travel to take on the St. Cloud Icebreakers, the fourth seed, Saturday. The game is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. at the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex.
The Riverhawks fell to the Icebreakers 5-1 earlier this year, but were playing without LaMere in that contest.
The winner of the game will move on to battle the winner of Roseau vs. River Lakes or Brainerd in semifinal action Tuesday night. The Riverhawks beat Roseau, the section’s top seed, 4-1 earlier this season. The high seed will host the semifinal game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]