Wildcats’ comeback stamps their state tourney ticket

After being down 2 goals, Eagan beats STA 4-2

Eagan players show the Section 3AA boys hockey championship trophy to their fans after being St. Thomas Academy 4-2 on Thursday night. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Eagan players show the Section 3AA boys hockey championship trophy to their fans after being St. Thomas Academy 4-2 on Thursday night. Photo by Mike ShaughnessyEagan didn’t abandon its game plan and before long was rewarded for staying the course.

The Wildcats fell two goals behind St. Thomas Academy in the second period of the Section 3AA boys hockey game. Things didn’t look good for them. But then they got the puck to the front of the STA net and banged in a rebound. A few minutes later, the same thing happened. And in the third period they used their physical play to take over the game and win 4-2 at Warner Coliseum on the state fairgrounds.

Eagan, which was in the section final for the fourth consecutive year, won it for the third time in that span. This time, however, it was different as the Wildcats went in as underdogs. They were the fourth seed in the section.

“It does feel good,” said senior captain Max Elsenheimer, who scored in the final minute of the second period to tie the section final. “We’ve been on a hot streak the last six games. Actually, it started when we lost to Lakeville North (on Feb. 8 in a South Suburban Conference game). They were No. 1 at the time and had a big lead on us, but we came back and almost tied the game.”

Lakeville North, which defeated Farmington 6-0 in the Section 1AA final, is the other South Suburban team in the Class AA state tournament. Quarterfinal pairings will be announced Saturday, and it’s out of the question that Eagan (18-9-1) and North could play each other. The Class AA quarterfinals begin at 11 a.m. Thursday, March 6, at Xcel Energy Center.

“For this group to go to the state tournament, it’s special,” Eagan coach Mike Taylor said. “It’s not the most talented team, but they’re tough, disciplined and they work hard.”

St. Thomas Academy (20-7-1) was in the Class AA playoffs for the first time. The Cadets won the state Class A championship the last three seasons, then opted up.

The Section 3AA final was billed as a contrast between STA’s puck-moving skill and Eagan’s grinder mentality. The Cadets capitalized on power plays in the first and second period and took a 2-0 lead.

“The first one was probably not a good play on our part and the second was a heck of a shot by (STA forward Tommy) Novak,” Taylor said. “But they were power plays. Five on 5, I thought we were doing fine.”

Eagan got its own power play goal at 10:21 of the second period when Nick Wolff knocked in a rebound. In the final minute of the period, Ian Entzion sent a pass to Elsenheimer at the front of the net. Elsenheimer didn’t get much wood on his initial shot but made good on a second chance.

“That’s our game, getting pucks to the front of the net,” Elsenheimer said. “We knew we didn’t want to be playing pond hockey against those guys.”

About three minutes into the third period, Jack Jenson recovered the puck near the wall and found Kyle Stebbing open for a one-timer and the go-ahead goal. Jenson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, got an empty-net goal with 43 seconds remaining.

Eagan fans had to hold their breath during a St. Thomas Academy power play in the third period. Novak rang a wrist shot off the crossbar, then Wildcats goalie Andrew Lindgren took away a close-in chance by making a glove save.

The Wildcats also used their size in the third period, which seemed to knock STA off its game just enough.

“These kids aren’t afraid to hit; we don’t have to tell them to take the body,” Taylor said. “We know the way we have to play.”