Before the Section 1AA boys hockey final on Thursday night, several Lakeville North players who were on the 2011 team that qualified for state gave the team a pep talk.
“We told them how special it was to make it to state,” senior Erik Rutt said. “How you’re treated, you’re at the top of the world with 18,000 people watching you. There’s nothing like it.”
The Panthers will get the chance to play at the Xcel Energy Center again after winning the Section 1AA title 6-3 over Lakeville South on Thursday night in Rochester.
Much like the Panthers’ season, the game had its ups and downs, but unlike much of the season, the boys caught a few breaks.
Lakeville South outshot the Panthers 39-31, but Lakeville North took advantage of its opportunities.
“Ironically, that’s been part of our struggle,” head coach Trent Eigner said. “We haven’t created a ton of offense. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We usually have 30 shots on goal, but we just haven’t had that puck luck.”
Nick Poehling got things going in the first period. He scored a power-play goal with assists from Erik Rutt and Tristen Hazlett, but South’s Mack Farley answered with a goal with assists from Weston Baumann and Cameron Jackson.
Nick Poehling wasn’t done, scoring again in the first period with help from Erik Rutt and Alex Wood.
“Their shots got through traffic,” Eigner said. “It was a sigh of relief. They were the kind of goals we haven’t got all year. It gave us a boost of confidence.”
North’s Jack Diercks extended the Panthers’ lead in the second period with a pair of goals. He punched in a long shot from Erik Rutt, and took advantage of a three-on-one with Jack Poehling and Nick Poehling to score the other.
“We didn’t necessarily completely outplay them, but every chance we had to bury the puck we did,” Diercks said.
But the Cougars weren’t going to go away easy as Baumann scored on a power play with assists from Justin Doeden and Jackson to cut North’s lead to 4-2.
In the third period North’s Blake Rutt took advantage of a brief window left open with assists from Brenda Cole and Diercks.
South’s Ben Freemark answered back a few minutes later with assists from Farley and Nick Oelrich but North’s Matt Ostdiek punched in an unassisted goal to ensure the victory.
Will Dupont had 36 saves in the victory for North, and Tyler Schumacher had 25 saves for South.
“They took it to us pretty well, but I thought we were going to win,” Erik Rutt said. “I’m pretty ecstatic. I didn’t know it would be by this much.”
It hasn’t always been this way for the Panthers, which has played one of the toughest schedules of any team in Minnesota this season. The team entered the playoffs with eight wins during a season where it had eight-straight losses. Still, the Panthers lost five games against top 20 teams in overtime.
“We put together a very difficult schedule so we knew there would be bumps in the road with so many young kids, but we focused on just getting better every day,” Eigner said.
Lakeville North’s record may be under .500, but it doesn’t consider the team an easy out at state.
“We don’t think of ourselves as an underdog,” Dierks said. “We go in every game knowing we’re going to win. Anything can happen.”
The Panthers enter the state tournament with an 11-16-1 record, one of the lowest in state tournament history.
“Our preparation through the sections was for the ultimate run for a state championship,” Eigner said. “We understand we’re going to be in the bottom of the seeds, but I don’t expect our kids to be wide-eyed when we get there.”
Section 1AA teams have fared well in recent years.
Last year Lakeville South upset No. 1 seed Duluth East 3-2 in the quarterfinal and went on to take third at state. In 2011, Lakeville North went 2-1 and won the consolation title.
All the Panthers want is a chance.
“You cherish this more as a senior,” Dierks said. “It’s a privilege to go. We’re not there just to make it. We want to show people we’re a good hockey team.”
The Class AA state tournament begins at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Other teams that qualified include Eastview, Edina, Wayzata, Moorhead and Duluth East.
“They might look at us as the weaker team, but we’ll take advantage of that,” Erik Rutt said.