Improbable rally gives Eagan a title

Boys hockey team wins SSP tourney for 4th straight year

Jesse Gabrielle (16) of Eagan celebrates after scoring in the second period of the Wildcats’ game against Hermantown at the South St. Paul Premier Tournament. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Jesse Gabrielle (16) of Eagan celebrates after scoring in the second period of the Wildcats’ game against Hermantown at the South St. Paul Premier Tournament. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

If Eagan needed a gut check, it got one last week in the form of a five-goal deficit.

The boys hockey team was staring at the end of its three-year reign as South St. Paul Premier Tournament champion.

If nothing else, “it was going to show us what kind of team we are,” coach Mike Taylor said. “We told them, either we’re going to wilt and it’s going to be an early night or we’re going to fight back.”

Eagan, trailing Hermantown by five goals early in the second period of the Premier Tournament title game Dec. 28, came back to tie the game. After a scoreless overtime period, the Wildcats won a shootout to win the tournament for a fourth consecutive year.

Minnesota State High School League rules don’t recognize shootout victories, so the game will be recorded as a 5-5 tie.

It felt like a victory to Eagan all the same.

“We knew we weren’t giving up, but obviously it was a shock to be down 5-0,” senior forward Cullen Willox said. “We kept grinding and popped some in.

“Jesse Gabrielle’s goal (at 16:59 of the second period) was huge. Then we came out in the third period and got a goal early, and I thought we were going to win.”

Hermantown, the 2012 state Class A runner-up, scored four times in the first period and made it 5-0 at 2:57 of the second. The final three goals of the flurry came while Eagan tried to skate off a major penalty for checking from behind.

Nick Smallidge, Zach Glienke, Willox and Gabrielle scored in the final seven minutes of the second period to make it 5-4, then Zach Schultz tied the game at 1:14 of the third period. Glienke scored the deciding shootout goal.

Eagan’s comeback strategy was the only one available: Take as many shots as possible.

“We needed to quick up on the breakout, quick up in the neutral zone and once we cross the blue (line), the puck’s got to be on net,” Taylor said. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to yell at you for shooting, but I will yell at you for not shooting. It’s the only way you’re going to score.’ ”

Eagan (8-2-1) defeated North St. Paul 9-0 and New Prague 4-0 in the first two rounds of the tournament.

Glienke had four goals and an assist against North St. Paul. Schultz had a goal and assist in the New Prague game. Andrew Lindgren played in goal for the first two periods against North St. Paul and the entire game against Hermantown. Matt Richmond got the start in goal against New Prague and stopped 10 shots to earn a shutout.

Taylor said the Wildcats got into trouble in the New Prague game and early in the Hermantown game with too much individualistic play. But they also showed character by coming back from a big deficit for the second time this season. Eagan trailed Lakeville South 4-1 in the second period of a Dec. 11 game before coming back to win 6-5.

“I really like this team,” the coach said. “They pull for each other. The older guys are taking on a mentorship role. They’re helping the younger guys because they know it’s best for the team. There’s no jealousy.”

The Wildcats, who lead the South Suburban Conference at 5-0, return to league play against Bloomington Kennedy at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Eagan Civic Arena.

The Hermantown game showed the Wildcats they’re never out of any game.

“Even though we didn’t start fast (against Hermantown), if you’re willing to put in the effort for all 51 minutes, you can still get a result,” Taylor said.