Health could mean wealth for Wildcats

Eagan boys skaters looking for 3rd straight trip to state

Eagan’s Cullen Willox (15) and Zach Glienke (27) attack the Moorhead goal during the 2012 state Class AA boys hockey tournament. Willox and Glienke are two of the Wildcats’ captains this season. Photo by Rick Orndorf

Eagan had to replace a number of key players from its 2012 state boys hockey tournament team, including four who accepted Division I college scholarships. But as the new season began this week, Wildcats coach Mike Taylor had an even bigger concern.

Namely, who was going to fill in for the current Eagan players who are injured or sick?

“At this point, I don’t even know when everybody will be back,” Taylor said. “We played in some scrimmages last weekend and we had three regulars in the lineup. Three. Sometimes you go through it in January, when you have some kids banged up and others that are sick, but we’re going through it before the season even starts.”

Eagan’s plight probably won’t garner much sympathy from its rivals in the South Suburban Conference, where it is the defending champion, or from opponents in Section 3AA, which the Wildcats have won the last two years. Taylor said the Wildcats will try to patch things together as best they can in hopes of making another postseason run.

“By February, I think we could be a pretty good team,” the coach said. “For now, it’s going to be a challenge. We want to see the kids get better and compete hard every night.”

Eagan’s top three scorers from last season graduated, but senior forward Zach Glienke returns after a 42-point season. He had a team-high 27 goals in 2011-12. He skated on the Wildcats’ second line last season but likely will be on the top line this year.

Senior forward Cullen Willox, who had 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) last season, is recovering from an injury and was not expected to play in the Wildcats’ season opener against East Ridge on Thursday.

Senior Will Peterson had 32 points last season. Peterson, Glienke and Willox are captains, along with senior Nick Smallidge, who is expected to anchor the Eagan defense along with Peterson.

Peterson and Smallidge are “doing great,” Taylor said. “They’re good kids, they work hard, and they’re setting a tempo for us.”

Seniors Josh Loew and Zach Schultz and juniors Max Elsenheimer and Peter Zibley saw varsity playing time as forwards last season. Tom Muck and Nick Wolff, both juniors, played defense last season.

Sophomore goalie Andrew Lindgren had a 1.42 goals-against average in nine appearances as the Wildcats’ backup. He went into this season as the starter, but Taylor said the competition to be Lindgren’s backup was still open.

Junior forwards Jack Jenson and Kyle Stebbing figure into the Wildcats’ plans, as does freshman forward Jesse Gabrielle. Gabrielle played several games this fall in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, a league that features many of the state’s best juniors and seniors (Glienke and Peterson played in the same league). Taylor said Gabrielle likely will skate on one of Eagan’s top three lines.

Even with some new players, Taylor said it looks like the Wildcats can play the same fast, physical style that got them sixth place at state last March and third the year before. The coach said the work ethic is in place for them to succeed.

“We had them all in our summer program,” Taylor said. “They put in a lot of hours, and they did it with no complaints. I’m very happy with the kids we have.”

But he’ll be happier still if he can get them all on the ice at the same time. The Wildcats hope that happens sooner rather than later because their next two games are against Hill-Murray and Minnetonka, teams that are ranked sixth and fourth in Class AA. Hill-Murray visits Eagan at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, and the Wildcats go to Minnetonka at 7 p.m. Tuesday.