Casey Chiodo remembers clearly when he first started thinking about the 2017 Section 5A Boys Hockey Tournament.
“To be honest, I’ve been thinking about this tournament since the buzzer rang at the last section tournament,” Chiodo said last week.
Last season, the Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake Moose came within minutes and a goal of the first state berth in program history. Instead, Princeton got that goal and the berth. The Tigers scored in the final two minutes and added an empty netter to end Monti’s postseason run one game short of state.
With a number of key performers returning this season, that loss fueled the flames of Moose players all offseason and all regular season, driving them to the best record in program history and the top seed in Section 5A, another first in program history.
The regular season will go down in the history books of the Moose program. But the players, a group that is led by a strong senior class, know that the next two weeks will define this season and their legacy in a program that was long downtrodden.
“The real season starts now,” said Moose senior Nick Zwack. “And our guys are ready for it.”
For MAML, that season, the postseason, will begin Thursday, Feb. 25. As the top seed, the Moose will take on No. 9 Moose Lake, who beat Big Lake/Becker in double overtime on Tuesday night. MAML beat Big Lake/Becker 10-0 earlier this year, but has not played Moose Lake.
Right below MAML in the bracket, No. 4 Princeton and No. 5 Pine City will square off. If MAML wins Thursday night, it will host the winner of that contest on Saturday night.
The Moose beat Pine City in their only matchup of the season, while going 1-1 against Princeton, their nemesis from last year’s section final.
On the other side of the bracket, North Branch is seeded second and Chisago Lakes is seeded third. The Moose beat North Branch 3-0 in their only matchup of the season, while falling at home to Chisago Lakes before beating them on the road earlier this month.
The Moose, who enter the tournament red-hot (8-1-2 over their last 11), are going in with a balanced mind set, according to Zwack.
He said they benefit not just from having beat every team in the section, but from getting tripped up a couple of times as well.
“It keeps us on our toes,” said Zwack. “But we know that when we do come to play, we can beat any team.”
A few areas that figure to be key to MAML’s success in the postseason are top-line scoring, power play effectiveness and goaltending.
The top-line, which has been intact since the opening period of the season, has been dominant for much of the year. MAML’s top three point-getters all come from that first line. Junior centerman Ben Ward paces the Moose with 57 points on 23 goals and 34 assists, while Zwack totaled 46 points in the regular season (20 goals, 26 assists) and sophomore Troy Dahlheimer added 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists).
Zwack said the line has a nice combination of speed (all of which comes from Ward and Dahlheimer, said Zwack) and play-making, but that time spent playing together might be their biggest strength.
“We’re able to know where the other person is going to be,” he said. “I think that is what’s helped us put as many points up as we have.”
As the going gets tough in the postseason, they’ll likely be relied upon to continue that production. The senior captain said the trio relishes the challenge of consistently putting the puck in the net.
“There’s no pressure, but it’s kind of a fun motivation to push ourselves to make sure we’re on the point sheet every night,” said Zwack.
The second key factor may be MAML’s success on the man-advantage. Goals can be tougher to come by in postseason play, putting an extra emphasis on special teams. MAML’s players know they may need to cash in on those situations if they want to pick up that first-ever state berth.
“Anytime a team gives you an opportunity or a chance, you want to take advantage of it,” said Chiodo, who led the team with six power-play goals during the regular season.
MAML converted on 25 percent of their power plays during the regular season, while allowing the exact same percentage to opponents.
But Chiodo said the power play unit enters postseason with a lot of confidence.
“Once we get in the groove and set up in the zone, we’re really hard to stop,” he said, adding he believes they’ll have opportunities for multi-goal games in the postseason.
The third key to MAML’s postseason is goaltending, something that’s likely been a key to every hockey game ever played.
The Moose will have junior Tyler Klatt between the pipes to begin postseason on Thursday. Klatt received the lion’s share of the minutes during the regular season, compiling a record of 15-6-1, with a goals against average of 2.72 and a save percentage of .880. The junior posted three shutouts during the season.
If momentum becomes the fourth factor, it will certainly be to the benefit of the Moose. MAML finished the regular season with a flourish, going unbeaten for 10 games before falling to No. 6 in Class A St. Cloud Cathedral in a tight one last week. That run, stretching more than a month, helped lock up the top seed in the section, something Coach Eric Nelson called an honor.
“It’s an excellent position to be in, when you look at where our program has been,” said Nelson. “It’s fun to see the kids succeed.”
Nelson said he’s trying to strike an even tone about postseason and state tournament possibilities, but he knows what his team is capable of.
“I try not to bring it up too much. I don’t want it to be the end all, be all,” he said, before echoing a message that he first delivered before the season. “If we put in the work, and put in the time, the results will take care of themselves.”
For the senior class, this postseason is a culmination of years of work, losing, winning, and anticipation. Chiodo said in middle-school players were already starting to hear the buzz about what they might be able to accomplish. A few years later, as sophomores, they took some lumps and learned some lessons during a 9-16 season. Last year, they turned it on late and found themselves just minutes away from a postseason dream so well-recognized around the state, and even country, that many just call it “the tournament.” This year, they’re ready to take their final shot.
“This core group of guys, we’ve been playing together since we were nine,” said Chiodo. “We always kind of knew this was going to be our year.”
“Our whole lives have built up to this tournament, this section tournament,” Chiodo added. “We have the passion. We have the skill. We just gotta do it now.”
“And I know we can.”
MAML opens the section tournament at home at 7 p.m. Thursday night with a quarterfinal game vs. Moose Lake. If the Moose win, they will be back at home on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. again to host the winner of Princeton vs. Pine City. The Section 5A Championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2 in Elk River.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com